Stories from Kosovo

Drawing on the intimate testimonies of the women survivors of the Kosovo War I reveal how the experience of living through one of the darkest moments in this country’s history has impacted on their lives. These unique and powerful stories tell of mass atrocities, expulsion and loss, of violence, hardship and horror, and of adversity, survival and hope. They don’t simply tell us what we already know or repeat commonly held notions of national history. Instead, these women bravely question these dominant framings by bringing to light hidden or even jettisoned versions of their country’s past, of a fragile political system and of a possible future as an independent State.

Stories about the war are in constant circulation in Kosovo. Interlaced in everyday conversations they are repeated, shared and remembered among survivors, transmitted from one generation to the next or told to researchers, like myself, with no first-hand experience of the violence and hardship. These compelling stories were collected as part of an anthropological research project on the differential impact of war and trauma on Kosovar Albanian women from two villages, Krusha e Madhe and Pastasel. Over one year (2007-08), I lived in Krusha with a war widow and her children and was adopted into their family as a daughter. Since then, I return annually to both Krusha and Pastasel to participate in people’s everyday lives.

The stories are grouped into three distinct categories to highlight the women’s collective memories of violence and hardship, embodied expressions of distress and what it takes to heal the inner wounds of war.

“Remembering War and Hardship” engages with memories related to wartime life. I explore women’s and, in exceptional cases, also men’s intimate experiences with the gruesome events, modes in which the past is shared, contested and revised, and how these deliberations are folded into individual and communal present-day lives through stories and ordinary acts of living.

“Speaking Through Pain” explores embodied expressions of past events and assessments of present-day hardships and grievances. The stories bring to the fore how Kosovar Albanian express painful events through an embodied language, symptomspeak, which is shared among them to convey critical messages about the past and, through the past, the present and future that would otherwise have been difficult, if not impossible, to hear.

“Realms of Healing” follows women into the clinics of health professionals and traditional healers to explore how their symptomspeak is taken up, interpreted and negotiated in what I call counter-public contexts.

The Brutality of the Kosovo War

To fully grasp the women’s stories, it is helpful to have some background knowledge about the Kosovo War. Kosovar Albanians sought independence following the death of Communist Party leader Josip Boroz Tito on 8th May 1980 after two decades of oppression by Serbia. However, their political initiatives were brutally struck down when Serbia declared war against Kosovo in 1998, resulting in the killings of over 10,000 people, with the majority of victims being Kosovar Albanians killed by Serbian forces. In addition, 90 per cent of the population was uprooted with 863,000 civilians forced into refuge outside Kosovo and 590,000 internally displaced.

Throughout the war, torture, looting, pillaging and extortion were regular occurrences. 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 did not return home alive; rather, their mortal remains continue to be found in mass graves located all over Serbia and Kosovo. During the war, rape and other forms of sexual violence were employed as strategic instruments of terror to desecrate individual bodies and deliberately undermine moral space and community bonds, and weaken resistance to aggression. Groups of Kosovar Albanian women were forcibly kept for several days in Serbian strongholds or public places, forced to cook, clean and endure rape or other forms of abuse by Serbian military and paramilitaries. The actual number of victims of rape and sexual assault remain contested due to the reluctance of survivors to speak due to fear of stigmatization and reprisal.

Their silence spurred me to investigate how Kosovar Albanian women living in rural areas experienced the war and its aftermath. I conducted ethnographic research in the villages of Krusha e Madhe and Pastasel both of which had been almost completely destroyed and exposed to large-scale massacres. During the war, between March 24 and 27, 1999, the village of Krusha e Madhe had been under constant attack by Serbian military, paramilitary and armed civilians. 241 civilians were killed, among them five women, seven children and many of the elderly. While the surviving population fled to Albania, Serbs destroyed over 790 houses, burnt the mosque and cultural center and demolished the school and various historical monuments. Another major atrocity was the massacre committed by Serbian forces in the remote village of Pastasel on March 31, 1999. 120 men were separated from the women and children, mistreated and shot with machine guns. 13 men survived the massacre but were seriously injured. Women and children were sent by Serbian soldiers to Albania on foot while most of their houses and stables were burnt, agricultural equipment destroyed and livestock killed.

These events provide the backdrop for the intimate and powerful accounts of the women survivors of Krusha e Madhe and Pastasel. It is their stories, and those who share their lives with them, that I will tell.

Embodied Stories About Pain and Hardship

Why call the blog Symptomspeak? Throughout my research I learned that experiences of violence could not always be put into words. Sometimes, there simply are no words strong or precise enough to fully convey the enormity of what an individual has witnessed or experienced. This does not mean, however, that there are not alternative forms of expression.

Among women in Krusha and Pastasel, I discovered a unique symptomatic language through which they communicated their pain and suffering. I call this language “Symptomspeak”. Symptoms, I understand to be more than bodily or mental phenomena, circumstances, or conditions arising from or accompanying diseases or affections (as the Oxford English Dictionary might suggest). Rather, they bring together physical and emotional pains with social and political ills. By speak I mean an action of conveying information, views and feelings in interaction with others. It is through such verbal, performative and embodied interactions that stories can be heard and experienced by others. The women I lived with spoke through their bodies about their personal experiences both during the war and throughout their uncertain present. Through this medium they told me about their country’s recent violent past; current local, national, and international political and economic agendas; and dominant power hierarchies

To understand this language, I observed and listened to women’s painful expressions as they unfolded in the everyday and were reflected upon by different groups of people including the women themselves, but also by other villagers, aid providers, and health professionals including traditional healers. Observing the unfolding of symptoms required patience, because suffering – contrary to what some might expect – does not express itself dramatically in clearly defined moments. It is a lived experience that is communicated in unspectacular ways. For me, this meant participating in the everyday without getting completely lulled into its rhythm of housework, agricultural labor, visits, watching TV (electricity permitting)… but to capture the minute expressions of worries and nervousness as they were woven into narratives and exchanged between bodies in ordinary moments. Telling the stories here allows me to explore versions of reality that develop at the margins of the Kosovar society and investigate the ways they question, threaten, and change the status quo.

My Readers

The blog is intended for a broad audience and especially for those who take an interest in the lived experience of wars and their aftermath, in suffering and mental health, and in health-seeking and healing. It will also speak to those interested in the history and cultural setting of South-Eastern Europe, particularly Kosovo.

I also intend this blog to be for scholars who contribute to the field of anthropology as well as in the adjacent fields of transcultural psychiatry, public health, gender studies, development and allied social sciences. The blog will also be of interest to students who focus in their courses on culture and psychiatry; mental health in the context of conflict; war, gender and health; and social suffering and local expressions of distress.

For health practitioners the blog will provide valuable insights into expressions of distress and the ways in which they shape health trajectories and demands for care among people in post-war and -conflict societies. As health providers are increasingly confronted with clients from war-affected regions across the globe, such a nuanced understanding of suffering and mental health is seen as crucial in order to provide adequate treatment and support.

About Me

An anthropologist with a long-standing interest in the field of global health I investigate how systemic violence, ethnic conflict, and complex emergencies, intersect with health and mental health outcomes. I conduct ethnographic research on the impact of war and trauma on women in Kosovo; on what it means for persons with mental health problems to live and participate in their respective communities; and on humanitarian and mental health interventions in fragile states.

Currently, I work as a Senior Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine at King’s College London. I received my PhD in cultural and medical anthropology from the Departments of Anthropology and Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University. I hold two major grants: a Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award to investigate community-based support for persons with mental health problems in Palestine, Ghana and the UK and a RCUK grant to build research capacity in the field of mental health in conflict affected areas of the Middle East with particular focus on Palestine. My academic and personal interest in Kosovo is ongoing as I continue to collect stories about pain and politics during my annual visits to the country, collaborate with Kosovar academics on research projects, and publish my insights in academic forums and now also, I write this blog.

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