Voices of Pain

my head is split

there is a stone in my stomach

I am worried

my neck hurts

my back hurts

heat moves up in my body

I feel cold

my mouth pulls to the side

I can’t move my arm

I am afraid to go blind

the tears keep coming

I feel nervous

my blood goes up

my heart races

I can’t sleep

I can’t wake up


this is the language of SymptomSpeak

a language that is fragmented, exhausting and unbearable

unbearable in its intensity as it materialises in those entangled in dialogue

dialogue that leaves tangible traces on bodies, minds and social relations

social relations that are built on tears, headaches and cramps


as I was conducting research with women in Kosovar villages about the mental health impacts of war and trauma[1], I gradually began to understand emotional and physical pains as more than illness experiences[2]

I learned to appreciate them as tangible substances[3], which women threaded together and exchanged to voice contested realities about the war and its aftermath and to render life’s challenging experiences commensurate

trying to grasp these embodied exchanges, I called them SymptomSpeak[4]

symptoms I understood to be bodily or mental phenomena, circumstances, or conditions which signify diseases and affections as well as wider social and political ills

speak, I considered the actions of conveying information, views and feelings in dialogic interaction with others

as SymptomSpeak unfolded among the women, it brought them closer together in affective communities thriving from reciprocity as pains were exchanged accompanied by multiple acoustic, linguistic, and visual effects

through such dialogic exchanges, they bodied forth messages about the world they inhabited bravely reflecting about the war and the unspeakable violence perpetrated against them, the grinding hardship of poverty, unemployment and low wages, the discrimination against them as women who struggled on the rigged job market with little formal education, the conflictual relations in close knit communities where people depended on one another, the generational rifts as the younger generation was no longer willing or able to follow in the footsteps of their elders

however, the women’s SymptomSpeak was not merely one of complaint, it was also one of demand

through their pains, they insisted on societal change calling for justice and repartitions for war crimes, national self-determination and independence for Kosovo, the end of corruption and self-enrichment of those in power, adequate welfare and pensions to be able to live in dignity, fair and meaningful aid distribution based on families’ needs, the end of gender discrimination and social marginalisation, and job opportunities and sufficient income to lead better and more secure lives

these symptomatic exchanges and expressions of grievance, injustice and demand were nothing ethereal or somehow otherworldly

they were hooked to tangible, often visible pains as tears flowed, bodies cramped, and foreheads tensed with pain

painful expressions historicized the women’s social and political discussions leaving marks on the bodies and minds of speakers and listeners alike

seeing and acknowledging these marks and having a visceral reaction to the pain experienced within another woman meant understanding each others’ predicaments from the inside

yet, it was not enough for the women to observe and feel each others’ pain

it also meant taking responsibility for one another by engaging in physical embodied labour to render the pains meaningful in the inter-human that is, the “non-indifference of one another” [5] and mutual care for one another

it was thereby that the women could achieve true compassion and a sense of healing in a world that felt unfairly stacked against them



Interview with Lorida, a middle-aged woman who had lost her husband to an illness shortly after the war. Spring 2008.


Hanna: Thank you very much again for taking the time to talk to me.

Lorida: Thank you that you came to interview me.


Hanna: What would you say is the biggest problem that you’re facing at the moment?

Lorida: My biggest problem is that I don’t have an income.  My three children are at school, they need books, notebooks. I have no outside support, I depend only on my 60-euro widow pension. (…) Now Bajram[6] is coming, I have no money and the children are asking for things.  They also need things.  This is my economic situation. Inshallah[7], my children will grow up and work one day, and will be able to live on their own without having to beg.  It is very difficult to hold your hand open all the time.  It is very difficult to always say to your brother or sister ‘I don’t have to, I don’t have.’ (…) What happiness is there for me? I become nervous and get high blood pressure, become tense behind my ears.

Hanna: I am sorry to hear this. Can you tell me what has brought your economic situation about?

Lorida: The war! Our house was completely burned and destroyed.  All family members survived.  But, we only had the clothes that we wore on our bodies.  Nothing else. 

Hanna: Where did you sleep when you came back [from refuge]?

Lorida: There was sort of room, kind of a stable that consisted of four walls and roof.  The wind was coming in and the rain was dripping in and my husband was very sick. (…) We received help at the time. [An organization] built my whole house.  It was all their help.  All, from the floor to the roof with everything included, doors, windows.  How could I have built my house otherwise?  Where would I have gotten the money? (…) We were also helped with clothes and food.

But, here in the village, the help was misused a lot. (…) A lot of families who didn’t have any damages during the war and had a cow, then received another cow.  Just like that. Five years ago, my children were very small, I was chasing after organizations, too tired to work, just for some money.  I realized that I was not profiting from it and I quit.


Hanna: This sounds very stressful.

Did you have any health problems since the war?

Lorida: Yes, I had health problems after the war.  First, I was operated on the gallbladder and then my eye.

Hanna: What was the matter with your eye?

Lorida: A surface kind of appeared, and I couldn’t see.  Now I have to get my other eye operated on.  But everything is connected to expenses. And, as soon as I become nervous, my chest starts hurting.  It starts on the right side and then it moves to the back. Also my neck vertebrae hurt.  My doctor told me to go to hot springs, but I don’t have money.

Hanna: What else happens when you get stressed out or nervous?

Lorida: I get very high blood pressure, very high!  Then, I have to go to the doctor to get an injection.  My head gets tensed and I cannot turn it.  I get injections to lower my blood pressure.

Hanna: Did you have similar health problems before the war when you got stressed out about certain things?

Lorida: No, no, no it all happened after the war.  I was doing very well before the war since my husband had a big salary, 1000 Deutsch Marks.  I didn’t need anyone; I didn’t have to open my hand towards anyone.  It is so difficult now after the war.

Hanna: When did you experience these health problems for the first time?

Lorida: It appeared right away when my husband died, but they also came right after the war when we returned and saw that our house was burnt.  Before the war, and I am ashamed to say it, I was doing very well. Now, after the war, it’s going down.  I’m so sorry for the children.

My life ended, but I’m sorry for my children.  I want to see them happy and satisfied just like the others.  If a mother sees her children crying, there is nothing worse.

Hanna: When you’re stressed and think of these difficulties, what do you do to relax yourself?

Lorida: I try to get it out, I cry.  But, it doesn’t help until I go to the doctor and receive some drops in the water or an injection. (…)

The doctor said that if he would prescribe me pills, it wouldn’t be good as I would have to take them all the time.  He said that I am too young to take medication for calming all the time.

Hanna: I can see that.  Is there something else that you do to become calm?

Lorida: Yes!  If it wasn’t for the handicraft!  I relax very much doing it.  Whenever I go to stay somewhere, at my friends’, I take my handicraft with me. (…)

In spring and summer it is much easier as I have a lot to do in the garden when I take care of peppers and tomatoes.  But now, what?!  I have nothing but handicraft. (…) When I crotchet, I will do one line more and one more and so the time goes by.  If I wouldn’t work handicraft, I would finish my duties, cook and clean and then what?  How not to have high blood pressure?  What should I do?  My children are in school now and I can only remain with high blood pressure.

Hanna: Do you know people who have similar problems like you?  Can you talk to them about what you are going through?

Lorida: Sure, [my friends and I] talk a lot.  We have similar problems and we can talk about it with each other.  We talk about health and our economic situation.  Some friends are in better situations.  (…)  When you have money, you can do everything.  When you don’t… It’s not important to have fancy furniture and fancy stuff in the house, but when you need the money to go to the doctor as they all work privately what do you do then?  If I cannot afford sugar, I cannot drink tea.  We say ‘I would only have bread and salt’.

What can you do when you get sick or if the children get sick?  The doctors don’t care and he charges as much as he does.  That is the main problem. Nobody comes to see what you’re eating; there might just be bread and tea. (…)

You know, all of my health problems are related to my economic situation.  When I borrow money from a friend, and she wants her money back and I only have the 60 euros I get 30 euros to her and then, what should I do with the rest?  That is the reason why I have high blood pressure. From now until the 12th of January, the money has to last.  That is the reason.

I keep asking myself, why did it happen to me?  What have I done to God?  That’s how it is.

Hanna: I don’t know if you believe, but does your faith help you when you’re confronted with these problems?

Lorida: Yes. But, there is no help. Still I trust in God. I also go to the Sheh, to the Hoxha, they’re all Muslims, they’re all Albanians. (…) I put a coin [offering] in the tyrbe[8] and I pray to God ‘please God help me by taking these problems away.  Bring goodness to me.’  So I pray to God when I put the coin there ‘please God take away my bad thoughts and bring good ones.’

Hanna: Thanks for sharing this. Have you tried other things to help with your situation? Not sure, but I hear people ask others to read their coffee cups or get amulets…

Lorida: No, I don’t know where to go for these things.

Hanna: No?

Lorida: I would like it very much, but I don’t know where to go.  If I would know where to go, I would run.

Hanna: Yes?

Lorida: Yes, but there’s no one here.  I would like someone would look at my coffee cup.

Hanna: I always find it very interesting.  Sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not.

Lorida: Some people know all as they know exactly what they’re doing.

Hanna: Where have you heard of people who are doing a good job?

Lorida: My sister’s sister-in-law, she looks very good in the coffee cup.  She told me exactly what happened.  Everything she told me became true. She said that you will receive an amount of money, that a woman is caring and thinking about you, and that there will be problems – Everything she said became true.  I received the money and I had a big problem.

Hanna: Have you ever received an amulet for protection?

Lorida: No!  When I got married, yes.  My mother had one made for me.  We believe in evil eye and spell. For several years, I couldn’t have children because of a spell. Then, my mother went to a village to a woman who writes amulets and got one for me. (…) I had to put the amulet on my belly. (…) I can swear on fire, God meant these amulets to work.


Hanna: Have you ever experienced something that could be a spell after the war or was that strictly before the war?

Lorida: Not after the war.  After the war… my husband is dead and this is exactly what they wanted.  They are satisfied now. I lived 15 years with my husband and he never had to take medication. I used to think more about my own death than about his.

So, now I get nervous, I get tense, I get sad. I always ask ‘how come that it happened to me?’



Interview with Flora, an older woman whose son had been killed during the war fighting for the Kosovo Liberation Army. Summer 2008.


Hanna: Thank you again very much in for agreeing to this interview.

Flora: Thank you for coming.  We hope you will write about us and that you will receive help in doing so.

Hanna: Thank you for saying that.

Let us begin with your story. When were you born?

Flora: I was born in the 1940s.  When I was born it was said that there was such poverty that we didn’t have enough bread to eat.  It was very difficult to live and we had to cut the bread in half.


Hanna: How did you grow up under these difficult circumstances?

Flora: I was 16 when I got married.  They didn’t want to keep me longer in the house in my family.  Maybe, they couldn’t afford having me around longer.  In the 16 years before I got married, I tried to get a little bit of an education.  I know how to read and to write; but now I can’t see properly.  I went to school for six years.  In the seventh grade I went to the school for women, the women’s school.  There, I went for two hours per day to learn about house making, hygiene and giving birth.


Hanna: After you got married, how many children did you have?

Flora: Now I have seven.  The oldest one is dead.  Now I have seven.

Hanna: I am so sorry you lost your oldest son.

How old are your children?

Flora: I cannot remember.  After my son died I cannot remember these things.  When my oldest one died, he was 32.  The next son is 38 now and the others are all two years in between.  I gave birth every two years.


Hanna: When you think about your situation now, what would you say are the main problems you are facing?

Flora: The biggest problem is the education of my youngest son.  I would like him to get educated. (…) I am not sure if we can afford it. I’m not sure if he will have enough to eat and whether he will be strong enough to go on. (…)

We are a very big compound and our biggest problem is unemployment.  None of the men are employed and they don’t have salaries.  (…) Everyone wants to eat, to drink, have clothes, have money to go to the doctor.  If I would have money, I would go to the doctor and have them check my spine as it hurts.  I also have lots of pain in my toe. If you see it, you would think that nothing is the problem.  But, I have a lot of pain and I can’t go to the doctor. I can’t afford it.


Hanna: What is the reason for your economic situation?

Flora: The war. The house in which we are now was totally destroyed.  This room here used to be full of flour.  When we returned from the war, there was nothing left.  Everything was taken, all we had.  Everything was taken from here, TV, machinery, and the house over there was also destroyed.  When we returned there were no jobs for our men.  We could not continue to live normally.  We had to work our land and to eat from that.

No one helped us!  We had two dead persons in our family.  We didn’t receive money, we didn’t receive building material, our men didn’t get jobs, nothing. Now that Kosova is free and independent, things might change. But it’s a difficult road ahead.


Hanna: How do you cope with the situation?

Flora: I work a lot.  Maybe the others think that I don’t do a lot.  But I’m the oldest one and I think I do a lot.  I milk two out of four cows. I would like to milk all of them, but I can’t.  I also process the milk and milk products. (…) Although I am in grief for my son, I am not excluded from the work.  Although I’m sad, I have the same things to do.

Hanna: Does it help you to work to overcome the grief?

Flora: It is much better when you work. If I wouldn’t work, I would lose my mind. (…) When I have sad thoughts about my son, I smoke three cigarettes. When I am very sad and very emotional I have to go to his grave, to clean it and to wash the gravestone.  I work around the flowers.  There is no other way that I can deal with it. Sometimes I take pills to calm me down, but I can’t take too many. (…)

Hanna: Since the war, do you suffer from health problems?

Flora: I have strong headaches.  I never had it before.  But now that I’m sad and cry, I get it all the time.  Sometimes it is such a strong pain but I cannot see on one eye. Also, I cannot see well and the tears come all the time. I am not old enough to get blind. My mother lived 84 years and until her death she could see and she was smart.  I also have back pain.  I got it because we got cold when we had to stay at lots of different places [during the flight]. I was operated four times.


Hanna: Can you tell me when your headaches and back pain started?

Flora: The headache started when I lost my son.  I never had headaches before the war although I had to raise a lot of children on my own.  I was alone, my husband was abroad.  He brought money so that I could raise my children well enough.  There were no worries, no poverty, and no headaches.

Hanna: When did the back pain start?

Flora: I gave birth to a lot of children.  It is from giving birth so many times. Also, when I carry heavy weights, when I worked a lot, then it hurts a lot.

Hanna: Does anything else hurt when you worry about something?

Flora: I get stomach pain and cramps.

But, you know, I am not the only one who feels like this. Let me tell you about this other woman who lost her brother in the massacre. We are related to her.  The relatives came to see the dead body [shortly after the massacre had been committed].  This woman I am talking about saw her brother lying there among the other dead bodies. Over a hundred people were killed. They saw all these dead bodies. After seeing this, she lost her memory. Since this moment, she doesn’t know anything anymore. She went to the doctor, to Gjakova, to Prishtina, to doctors everywhere. Doctors said that they can’t help her. The brain is very small now. This is what grief does.


I am very sad about my son. I grieve for him.  But, my daughters and my sons and the other young people around here help me to keep my mind together. (…) Also the pills I take help. (…) The pain disappears immediately.  But after a while, it returns when I’m in grief, when I have problems with my husband, when I have problems with the others, or when I think of my son.

Hanna: What else helps you in these difficult situations?

Flora: My faith! It helps a lot!  I trust and believe in God.  I believe in all holy places like the tyrbe, church, all. I love to go to these places that I leave a nesra [offering]. I don’t start anything or start my day without praying to God and saying bismeallah. God himself in heaven helps me a lot to keep my mind together.  I lost such a smart son.

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)


[1] During the Kosovo War in 1998/1999, the ethnic Albanian majority sought independence from Serbia. Serbian forces used extreme violence against the Kosovo Albanians resulting in over 10,000 deaths, torture and sexual violence, displacement, and the destruction of communities. Around 90 per cent of the population was displaced (for more information read here).

[2] Research I refer to in this blog piece was conducted over a period of 15 months between 2007-2009. (See also here for more information)

[3] I am inspired by Nadia Seremetaki’s concept of ‘shareable substance’ which she uses to eloquently describe how grief, expressed through the body is shared among women in the Inner Mani of Greece. She vividly outlines how women transform their emotions into embodied feelings that are, as “shared substances”, passed between them.

[4] For more information see also https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-021-09746-1

[5] Emmanuel Levinas (1988) reminds us that the experience of pain can only be rendered meaningful in the inter-human that is, the “non-indifference of one to another, in a responsibility of one for another” (165) and Veena Das (2007) writes that the denial of the other’s pain “is not about failings of the intellect but the failings of the spirit” (57).

[6] Feast of Breaking the Fast

[7] If Allah wills it

[8] Place of worship

Share This Post