International Day of the Disappeared – Torn between Hope and Despair

Today is the International Day of the Disappeared. Sitting on the floor, with our backs pressed against the couch, Teuta and I watch televised pictures of hundreds of people marching through Kosovo’s major cities demanding to know the fate of their loved ones. Women, dressed in black, solemnly carry oversized portraits of their husbands, sons, and fathers. White banners are held high calling for truth and justice from local and international authorities as the sounds of wreath ceremonies, interviews, and speeches, echo in the room.

Behind us, on the living room wall, hangs a large frame with the portraits and names of fourteen young men who had lost their lives during the war. Plastic roses, three red, one white, are placed behind it. Teuta’s husband, looking smart in his wedding suit of red jacket and matching tie, is among them. Another portrait pictures him with Teuta dressed in a beautiful lacy white wedding dress, her long curly hair adorned with a veil and glittering white roses. A reminder of happier times, a reminder of the time they had together.

Next to me Teuta sighs as she washes down another aspirin to sooth her splitting headache. She has decided to stay at home, not to join the protest. Her husband’s remains had been found years ago and she was tired. Tired from having pickled tons of peppers the day before in the burning August sun and tired from grieving and being in pain.

Tearing her eyes from the TV screen, she turns towards me saying: “When my husband was still missing, whenever someone knocked at the door I would think: ‘Oh no, maybe they are bringing bad news’ or ‘Oh no, maybe they found something’. I always felt so stressed and afraid.” Torn between the hope that her husband was still alive and the fear that he might be dead was often too excruciating for her to bear.

Teuta’s hopes and fears were shared by many. Following the war, more than 3,000 Kosovar Albanians, most of them males, but also many women and children, disappeared at the hands of the Serbian police, paramilitary and military forces. Most of them did not return home alive. Rather, their mortal remains continue to be found in mass graves scattered all over Kosovo and Serbia. Over the past fifteen years, forensic experts have exhumed and identified thousands of corpses in order to return them to their families to be buried in home soil. Yet, their task was rendered extremely difficult as Serbians had removed and tampered with many of the gravesites by removing bodies or body parts, burning corpses, and exchanging clothing to complicate identification.[1]

Evidence of mass killings and other war crimes materialized nonetheless. What the forensic teams neglected during their ‘categorical ethnic identifications’ at the beginning was the establishment of personal identities and, therefore, the means through which to provide answers for the families and communities of the missing. It was then that family members and survivors began protests and hunger strikes against the haphazard treatment of their dead and called for the identification of all bodies.[2] While exhumations became increasingly systematic, high-tech and precise, the annual protests continue to this date, reminding onlookers of the grief and pain suffered when there is no grave on which to place a rose.

Unlike those who still continue to join the annual protest marches, Teuta is now able to visit her husband’s grave, to remember their time together and to talk with him. She remembers the love, his humour, and his desire of seeing her in short skirts. With sadness in her voice she recollects: “I wouldn’t wear them for him and he was so disappointed.” After a moment of silence she adds with sorrow in her voice: “Now I am sad that I never wore a short skirt for him. It would have made him happy. I don’t understand why the short skirt was such a big deal for me then. The morale counts and not the length of your skirt.”

We sit in silence for a while until I ask if burying her husband gave her a sense of closure to her. Teuta isn’t sure. “The shock and pain I felt when I was notified of his death never quite left me.” She tells me that, at the time, the Red Cross had set up a small clinic in the cultural centre of Krusha to inform families of their identification efforts. When the news spread that a list, with names of newly identified bodies, had arrived, Teuta decided, albeit with trepidation, to walk to the center to find out whether the names of her husband and brother-in-law were on it. She still held a spark of hope that they might be alive.

While talking to me, she re-enters the space of the clinic as she speaks with the Red Cross staffer. “They asked whether I was feeling well and I told them that I was fine. They asked me, ‘Can you sit down so that we can talk? For what family member did you come to make an enquiry?’

‘My husband and brother-in-law.’

‘Can you tell us when your husband was born and when he went missing?’

‘He was born on June 22, 1969 and the date he went missing was March 99.’

They replied: ‘We are sorry, your husband has been identified. We are also sorry for your brother-in-law, he has also been identified.’ They told me, ‘You should be content that you can now bury your family members as you know the reality. You can stop worrying about whether they are dead or alive.’”

Pulling her knees closer to her chest, she looks away from me adding quietly: “In that moment I felt that everything, the ceiling and everything collapsed on my head. I didn’t feel anything after that. But I also haven’t been feeling well ever since. Every bone in my body hurts. I have these horrible headaches. They asked me, ‘Would you like to know which body parts were found and identified?’ I said, ‘Yes’ and they said, ‘The right arm and the left leg.’”

As Teuta recounts the cold technical details and the practical advice that was provided by the staffer at the time, the ceiling seems to descend once more upon us. This time, however, it is the ceiling of her living room that threatens to crush us as we cry together envisioning the scene.

In the background on TV, the processions continue to portray those who are still hoping. Hoping to bury their loved ones, hoping to have their pains soothed.

(By Hanna Kienzler)

[1] For more information see: Amnesty International. 2009. Burying the Past. Ten Years of Impunity For Enforced Disappearances and Abductions in Kosovo. London: Amnesty International. Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso. Baraybar, Jose, Valerie Brasey, and Andrew Zadel. 2007. “The Need for a Centralized and Humanitarian-Based Approach to Missing Persons in Iraq: An Example from Kosovo.” The International Journal of Human Rights 11 (3): 256-274. Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication. 2014. The Road to Justice: Missing Persons in Kosovo from a Policy Standpoint. Prishtina: Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication. Human Rights Watch. 2001. Under Orders: War Crimes in Kosovo. Human Rights Watch. Rosenblatt, Adam. 2015. Digging for the Disappeared. Forensic Science After Atrocity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[2] In fact, only scant ante-mortem data were collected from relatives, and bone and teeth samples that could have later helped with DNA analysis were unfortunately often discarded. Some forensic teams reportedly even reburied the bodies they had autopsied in unmarked graves, some of which have not been discovered since (Rosenblatt, 2007, 2015; Baraybar, Brasey, & Zadel, 2007).

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