Grieving Loss, Remembering Hardship, Building a Nation. Commemorating the Massacres in Krusha e Madhe and Pastasel

It is March and the anniversaries of the massacres committed by Serbian forces in Krusha e Madhe and Pastasel in 1999 are nearing. They are commemorated on the 26th of March in Krusha and 31st of March in Pastasel. In 2008, shortly after Kosovo had declared its Independence from Serbia, my husband and I had the privilege of attending the anniversaries – ceremonies and emotions that have edged themselves into our memories never to be forgotten.

At the time, women in Krusha and Pastasel described living through the month of March as a great emotional challenge. The anniversaries of the massacres were the subject of daily conversations concerning painful memories about the war and the loss of life and accompanied a questioning of one’s own survival. Edona[1] told me, “March is the most difficult month, from the beginning until the end because I’m nervous and think of why the massacre happened and how it happened. I think about how we were doing, where we were staying, and that we didn’t have food and water nine years ago.” The women counted down the days to the anniversary in nervous anticipation, “Another sixteen days. It is a month of sadness, crying, and suffering. It is a difficult month for us.” The emotions and related physical pains both incapacitated the women and drove them to engage with many domestic tasks such as the preparation of food for the many anticipated visitors, assembling the portraits of their dead family members to be carried in the formal procession, and purchasing the wreaths to adorn the graves of their loved ones.

Several days before the anniversary, Makfire approached me to ask whether we could drive to Gjakova to purchase wreaths for her husband’s grave. Together with her son Valon, my husband Cees and research assistant Iliriana, we set out to find appropriate grave decorations. Winding the car through the narrow streets of the old town we finally reached a street with several vendors of grave decorations and coffins. In the first shop we entered, wreaths hung from the ceilings and along the walls and coffins were piled on top of each other in the corners of the dark room. The shopkeeper, a short middle-aged man got right down to business; he unrolled a red ribbon on his desk and asked Makfire what he should write on it. I was taken aback by his abrupt manner and briefly wondered whether selling wreaths was like selling peppers or shoes at the market. Iliriana tried to turn his attention to the fact that we would prefer to look at the decoration first. After examining the wreaths, Makfire didn’t seem to be satisfied and considered them too expensive despite the special offer that the shopkeeper had made.

We decided to look elsewhere. Driving past the market, past horse-drawn wagons, past men and women with bulging plastic bags and past the old and new Catholic churches, we eventually reached a small store that looked rather like a kiosk for hardware and snacks. Inside, a weathered looking man approached us. Like the previous vendor he was gruff, impolite, and made it clear that he wanted to do business. As we examined heart-shaped wreaths made of plastic and paper, Makfire explained that she found 25 euros too much.

Clicking her tongue and shaking her head, she announced, “I came all the way from Krusha just to buy a decoration in Gjakova. My husband died in the war.”

The man looked at her for the first time and asked, “Where did you say are you from?”

Makfire repeated firmly, “I came all the way from Krusha.

He sighed, “Well, in that case I will sell you the decoration for 20 euros.”

She agreed and decided on the heart-shaped wreath with light pink and white roses.

“What do you want me to write on the ribbon?” the man inquired.

“Memorial for Besnik Azemi – Valon and family.”

Iliriana looked bewildered and asked, “Are you sure?”

Makfire didn’t understand her confusion, “I could also write: The son and family.”

“I would write: Makfire and children,” suggested Iliriana.

Iliriana was concerned that Makfire’s decision to omit her own name from the dedication would make her “disappear” and “disempower” her within the patriarchal structure of her family and community, thus, symbolically minimizing her own agency as head of the house and decision-maker.

Yet, we quickly learned that it would be simplistic to suggest that Makfire lacked agency or decision-making power. Upon purchasing the wreath, Makfire decided to return to the first vendor to buy an additional one. When negotiating for its price it appeared that the special offer the vendor had made earlier was now expired. Upset, Makfire demanded loudly:

“What is this? On our first visit you offered it for 15 euros and now it’s 20 euros?!”

“But I earn only 1.50 euros from it,” whined the man.

Makfire bristled with anger, raised her voice and said scornfully, “1.50 euros, yeah right!”

Finally, he went back to his original offer. While he was writing on the ribbon, Makfire confused him by asking him to add the names of my husband and me to it as well. The atmosphere was tense and when he misspelled my name, Iliriana lost her patience, grabbed the pen from him and finished the job herself. While Makfire had not included her own name, her conscious act of including our names made apparent that traditional family structures are malleable, that her voice had weight, and that she could assert herself effectively.

On the days of the anniversaries of the massacres, women from Pastasel and Krusha brought into the open the wreaths and portraits of their loved ones carrying them in a procession toward the graveyards of the martyrs. At the graveyards several transformations could be observed. The photographs of individual family members were taken out of the intimate family structure and were incorporated into a genealogy of national heroes who had sacrificed their lives for the greater good. They were represented through images including photographs of heroic freedom fighters who were linked through an imagined genealogical line to Adem Jashari, one of the founders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and from him to the 15th century warrior Skanderbeg, leader in the struggle against the Turks. While this genealogy bereaved the martyrs of their own individuality, their character and their personal histories, it equally seemed to suggest that the death of these men was worthy – that they had sacrificed their lives for the nation, for the homeland. As if to emphasise this, the visual representations were underpinned by patriotic music and songs about Albanians who had lost their lives at the hands of the Serbians.

As portraits found their new place, so did community members as they started to arrive at the scene. Elders and most of the younger men took their seats in front of the stage next to village leaders, regional politicians, and journalists. Together, they created the centre of the commemoration ceremony by sitting with their backs to the graves, close to the stage anticipating the national anthem being sung and the various speakers appearing. The women and children were requested to move behind a barrier surrounding the graveyard. There, they were largely ignored throughout the ceremonies and were not invited to join the communication, or what was considered the public sphere.

This does not mean, of course, that the women remained passive along the margins. On the contrary, in their suspended zone they made emotions increasingly tangible by communicating their pain through body symbolism. Standing in their midst during the anniversary in Krusha, I listened as the sound of sobbing among the women grew louder and louder – as they watched each other cry, they broke into tears themselves spreading a chain reaction of grief among them. Thereby, tears turned into artefacts of exchange, a shared expression of emotional force and pain that connected the women together. In turn, this exchange acted to empower them as they created an affective enclave drawing the women ever closer together.[2] At the same time, this drawing together enhanced their separation from the public centre of commemoration where their emotions, sobs, and whispered condolences were drowned out by the music and later the rehearsed speeches.

The ceremonies began in both villages with the signing of an old Albanian hymn, which was followed by a minute of silence and several speeches by political representatives and family members blending memories of the war with demands for justice and ethno-nationalism. The following speech was delivered by the village representative in Pastasel:

Honoured family members of heroes and martyrs, honoured head of the municipality (…), honoured representative of the police forces, honoured population who have gathered here after nine years to remember the 106 martyrs who were killed by the Serbian paramilitary forces on March 31, 1999. Two weeks after the massacre, the Serbian forces returned to exhume the bodies once more and send them in different directions. Among the 106 killed were people from the surrounding villages like Senoc, Zatriq, Guri i Kuq, Qiflak, Kramavik, Llapqev, Sverk, Gremnik and other municipalities. Their names are engraved in golden letters on the long list of those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of this land. Their last wish has been fulfilled – Kosovo is independent and free. They built the foundation of the Republic of Kosovo with their blood. It is up to us to honour and respect their sacrifice for the freedom of Kosovo. May the soil of Kosovo rest light upon them. May they rest in peace!

This and other patriotic speeches were impressive actions that linked the creation of the new nation-state directly to the sacrifice of the martyrs and hence, reconfigured space and gave it a new significance. In fact, the speeches reminded the congregation of their duty to continue living the last wish of the ones who had given their lives for the homeland and appealed to the authorities of the Kosovar State and international agencies to take seriously the task of bringing to justice those responsible for the killings and to determining the fate of the missing. Such public speeches at strategically chosen commemorative sites, such as the graveyards for martyrs, can convey important messages that reinforce dominant collective memories of violence and the nationhood born out of it. In other words, they are apt for creating new nation states by turning the martyrs into a homogenous group representing a “sacrifice” – a sacrifice for the nation so that it can gain power over its territory and borders.

While the martyrs were transformed into “sacrifices” considered to have given their lives not in vain, but for the nation and its territory, such a representation would not have been effective on its own. In order to not only establish their right to Kosovo’s territory, but also to demand justice through criminal prosecution and reparations in the form of money and improved infrastructure, it was crucial to also publicly display suffering and pain. This was precisely where the women came in. Once the speeches were over and political representatives had placed their wreaths below the main monument, the men retreated to the margins and the women could enter the inner circle to display their grief in public. The developing mourning practices that occurred differed radically from the previous ordered speeches and ritualized exclamations of the men. Women, overwhelmed by emotion, knelt or threw themselves on the graves of their loved ones, rubbing their face in the dirt and crying bitterly, while others appeared stoic with no outward display of grief. Captured and published by journalists, the images of “the grieving and suffering Kosovar village women” received visibility and resonance through which they passed their pain onto others and engrained it into the collective memory of a wider national and international community of remembrance. In these moments, individual, interpersonal, communal and structural societal influences merged and transformed the women’s bodies into places of national memory and identity.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that the gendered division of commemorating was equally distributed between men and women. First of all, the speeches given by men excluded the voices of women. Their individual and collective memories were later also omitted in accounts published by local and international journalists who portrayed Kosovar Albanian women as bystanders, survivors, and sufferers who engender political events with pathos.[3] Similarly a recent report by the Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication noted that Kosovo’s current memory landscape is “in line with patriarchal norms and so presents further obstacles to women seeking to challenge the male dominated status quo.”[4] In the report it is further suggested that women have no significant place in the official and private memories dedicated to martyrs.[5] While I mostly agree with the assessment that women are not officially represented as heroes through memorialization projects such as statues, I disagree that they do not have a place in the memorialization of martyrs and the war at large. On the contrary, their absence during commemoration ceremonies would render the events utilitarian, cold, and somewhat immoral. It is through the women’s silence as well as their displays of personal grief and emotion that their loved ones cease to be solely “sacrifices” for, and markers of, the nation but were made grievable for others.

Author: Hanna Kienzler

[1] All names are pseudonyms

[2] Inspired by Nadia Seremetakis who writes in The Last Word about Greek mourning rituals that tears are artefacts requiring exchange should they not turn into “matter out of place” (1991, p.5).

[3] See also Krasniqi, Vjollca. 2007. Imagery, gender and power: the politics of representation in post-war Kosova. Feminist Review 86 (1):1-23.

[4] Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication. 2015. Post-War Memorialization and Dealing with the Past in the Republic of Kosovo. Prishtina: Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication.

[5] See also Krasniqi, Elife. 2011. Memorials in Kosovo today. Made in KS 3 (6):4-6.

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