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It was usual to find portraits of ancestors hanging in the living rooms of each of the family compounds. Acting like a family tree, they represented people’s heritage and brought attention to their patrilineage tracing decent through the male line. During the Kosovo War, Serbian soldiers had wilfully destroyed many of these portraits by removing them, ripping them apart, or burning them. These symbolic acts sought to ridicule the Albanian menfolk, to negate families’ rights to their land, and to interrupt their sense of origin and belonging. All that remained were the faded marks of the picture frames where once the portraits had hung, which served as stark reminders of the war and as placeholders for the portraits of the martyrs.

Photographs of the martyrs had been hung gradually over time as families had started to receive confirmation of the death of their loved ones from forensic experts who were matching DNA samples after exhumations of mass graves found all over Kosovo. The photos were often torn from old passports showing the light blue Yugoslav stamp in the right corner, enlarged, and framed. Gazing down from the walls, they demanded recognition and respect.  They were the silent witnesses of the war, the atrocities, and the tragic loss and venerated icons who were given the status of overseers of family life with direct bearing on social relations, values and morale. I was often formally introduced to them upon entering a family home for the first time. After Zana[1] had introduced herself and her three daughters-in-law, she pointed at the portraits above her head saying in a faltering voice, “They all died during the war. Up there is my husband Izet and next to him you see my three sons Skender, Mustafa, and Fidan.” Wiping away a tear, she welcomed me and asked her daughters-in-law to bring coffee and snacks so that we could sit comfortably on the couches below the portraits of their loved ones. Similarly, when I first visited Shpresa’s family, her mother-in-law, the matron of a large compound, ordered her to get up and tell me the names of the men portrayed in the large picture frame. Shpresa, now standing on the couch, pointed with one hand at the photos and with the other at her sisters-in-law who were sitting silently on the dark brown couches. “This is Myvete’s husband Etrit, this is Hasime’s husband Gazmend and their son Valmir, here you see Blerina’s husband Mehmet and their three sons Emin, Nazim, and Ardit.” After pointing out her own husband Florim, she briskly stepped down from the couch, grabbed her package of cigarettes and left the room. No explanation was necessary. Her mother-in-law cried silently and said bitterly, “It is better not to have children. Just don’t have children, Hanna! I had all these and why did I have them? Just so that they were killed!”

Confronting the portraits of martyrs could be unsettling and disorienting. They were eerily both absent and present while, at the same time, they communicated with, and acted upon the living in enigmatic ways. When little Valon did not return home immediately after school, his mother and sisters went looking for him searching the neighbourhood for an hour without success. Worried they sat in the yard until he finally appeared, skipping happily along the dirt road. He was caught off guard when his sisters’ fears for him unloaded in anger and sharp voices demanding to know where he had spent his time. As he kept evading their questions, he was accused of lying about his whereabouts. Running out of patience, his sisters finally dragged him, accompanied by kicking, crying and screaming, into the living room where they placed him below the portrait of his late father. “One more time, Valon, where have you spent your time while we were looking for you?” The gentle look of his father made him spill the beans, cry some more, and fling himself into the arms of his exhausted mother.

Upholding family hierarchies and values, the portraits were not always in control of their story. In rare cases, they provoked the women especially to talk about life in ways that was not usually acceptable as it jested with the dead and questioned the traditional norms, values and memories they represented. As Makfire and I were visiting Lorida, the latter pointed at a photograph on the wall portraying herself with her late husband in their Sunday best.

“Look how pretty I was. Who is prettier, me or my husband?” she turned jokingly to us.

I replied cautiously, “It’s kind of hard to compare the looks of men and women. You are both pretty.”

“No, I am prettier” she insisted.

Makfire chuckled and teased, “No, your husband is prettier.”

Suddenly, the atmosphere changed and the women leant forward with clouded eyes as Makfire said, “I was thirty nine when my husband died. Now I feel like an old woman. Life seems to be over.”

Lorida nodded slowly, her voice cracking, as she told me, “I was married for only fifteen years, that’s it… We were young and left without husbands.”

“I was fifteen when I got married” Makfire continued, “It was my parents’ decision. When I complained, my mother said, ‘this is the way your father is, just go along with his wish.’”

When I commented, “You were just a child…,” she replied quietly, “Yes, I should have played some more. Instead, I was given to a man.”

As our conversation continued, Lorida became slowly bolder in her critique of her family-in-law stating that she had not received much in terms of bride wealth upon her engagement. “I had to get engaged wearing the blouse that I had brought from home. I didn’t get anything from them. What a family!”

Makfire had a better fate, “No, I received things. I received blouses and some jewellery from my in-laws. Of course, I brought things from home too. But, not like you had to. Also, they paid musicians to make music and so on.”

Lorida brought an end to their recollections of engagements and weddings by throwing her hands in the air and crying, “My husband died on the 4th of March, on my birthday!” Makfire sighed and shaking her head she exclaimed, “and here we sit. No support. Our husbands were teachers; they worked for the state and for the Albanian people. But, nobody cares about us. We are garbage to them.”

Lorida’s hands landed with a thud on the couch bringing us all back into the present. For a brief moment, their conversation had made visible what the frame contained beyond the portrait – the difficult-to-reconcile emotions and values, which valorised and scathingly critiqued family and community life. The philosopher Judith Butler once wrote that photographs carry their purpose less within their image than within their frame. She noted, “We can think of the frame (…) as active, as both jettisoning and presenting, and as doing both at once, in silence, without any visible sign of its operation.” While the operation of the frame is usually not representable, there are circumstances when “disobedient acts of seeing” expose the forced dramaturgy as they critique the “censoring powers” of society.[2] Similarly, the frames holding the portraits of the martyrs presented, held and broke apart. These movements, in turn, allowed the portraits to oscillate between acting as reminders of war, as representations of those who had once demanded respect and veneration, as stimuli to provoke societal critique, while also simply being pieces of paper that blended into the background as families went on with their day-to-day lives.

Author: Hanna Kienzler

[1] All names in this story are pseudonyms

[2] Butler, Judith. (2016). Frames of war: When is life grievable? Verso Books.

The cover photo presents Ukshin Hoti, a philosopher and political activist who fought for an independent Kosovo. He worked as professor international law and philosophy at the University of Prishtina. Prior to the war, he was arrested serval times by Yugoslav authorities. During the war, he was captured and killed by Serbian forces. His bodily remains are missing to this date.

For more on photography, memory and war, you can also read  “The Photo Album