|More than 8,000 Kosovo Albanian males died in ethnic fighting between 1998 and 2000 [GALLO/GETTY]
Arbeta Kryeziu has grown up. Almost 13, her face is taking on the shape of her mother's. Staring at a picture of Arbeta as a child, her mother, Flora Rexhepi, looks tearful.
Rexhepi was widowed when she was just 24, after Serbian forces killed her husband, Ramadan Kryeziu, in his home village of Sllovia in April 1999, during the war in Kosovo.
Becoming a war widow was not Rexhepi's only catastrophe. After losing her husband, she had to give up her only child, who was then 18 months old, leaving Arbeta in the care of her late husband’s sister.
Rexhepi was a victim of Kosovar society’s strict expectations of widows, and of war widows in particular.
Unlike their sisters in western Europe, they are not supposed to "move on" but must remain in perpetual mourning for their late husband. Remarriage is strongly disapproved of, and children belong to the husband's family, not to the widow's.
Today, in Kosovo, according to the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, there are 5,052 war widows. Of that figure, only 20 have stopped receiving war widow pensions because they have remarried, the ministry says, which represents 0.4 per cent of the total.
Rexhepi was sent back to her parents' house in Gjilan, southeast Kosovo. The decision to return her there, and for her child to remain in Sllovia, was taken by the men of Rexhepi's own family and her late husband’s. She was not consulted. From now on, Rexhepi was told, she would be Arbeta’s aunt, not her mother. Since then, Rexhepi has suffered epileptic attacks.
Arbeta's aunt and uncle raised her well and she never suspected anything. But when she was eight, her father’s family revealed the truth to her. On learning the facts, Arbeta became colder towards Rexhepiand even called her a liar. She could not forgive Rexhepi for having abandoned her.
Now, although they do not live together, Rexhepi meets her teenage daughter regularly.
Sibel Halimi, a sociologist at Pristina’s Institute of Gender Studies, says Kosovo’s historical and political circumstances have determined its harsh codes towards widows like Rexhepi.
"Lack of freedom has prevented people from appreciating the importance of freedom in every sphere," she explains.
Different rules for men
When it comes to the remarriage of widowers, however, the rules in Kosovo are totally different. Society treats these men as victims who require a new partner immediately.
Selmon Zeqiri, 42, comes from Celina, a village just a kilometre from Krusha e Madhe, where Serbian paramilitary forces carried out a grisly massacre in March 1999.
Some 240 people were killed, leaving behind 140 widows and 502 orphans. Selmon lost 16 members of his immediate family, including his wife and two sons, in the conflict. Only his youngest son, Valon, survived the 1999 massacre. After the war, he came back from Germany, where he had been working, to bury his dead.
The second step was to find someone to marry. His relatives joined the hunt. "At first, I was not very interested in remarrying but then I realised I needed someone to cook and clean for me and create a new family," Selmon recalls. Today, he lives in his rebuilt modest house with his second wife, Lavderije, and three daughters and two sons.
Neighbouring Bosnia is also recovering from a recent war. Almost 100,000 people died in the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995, according to the Research and Documentation Center (RDC) in Sarajevo.
Thousands of Bosnian women have been widowed. Hanifa Kicic, a Bosnian Muslim war widow whose husband and older son were killed in 1992, lives in Tuzla in northeast Bosnia.
|The Kosovo office of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center estimates that up to 10,000 Albanians and 2,000 to 2,500 Serbs, Roma, Bosniaks and other non-Albanians were killed from January 1998 to December 2000. Of that figure, they estimate that 8,895 victims were Kosovo Albanian males.
She has dedicated her life to her younger son and looks stressed when asked if she has ever thought of remarriage. "No, nobody could ever replace him," she says of her late husband. But Kicic’s disapproval of widows remarrying is partly based on financial factors, as well as a feeling that it is not right.
"Those who've remarried have faced economic problems because they lose their state war widows' pension," she says. "That's why the majority didn’t remarry."
A war widow’s pension in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is worth around 160 euros per month, which is more than the average pension. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the average pension in BiH was worth 126 euros per month in 2009.
War widows’ pensions in Kosovo are on a comparable level, worth 130 euros a month, according to the Ministry of Labour and Welfare. Moreover, this is more than four times the average pension of about 40 euros a month.
Freer in England
The Balkans is not the only region in Europe where women have lost husbands recently in war.
Thirty-one-year-old Abby Cornish from Kent, southeast England, and her two children, were one of many families left without a husband and father as a result of Britain’s military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those conflicts have claimed more than 500 British soldiers’ lives since 2001.
Abby’s husband, Matthew, was killed in a mortar strike in Iraq on August 1, 2006, while serving in the British Army. "It was hard to watch the children growing up without their dad, who loved them so much," Abby says.
But she coped with the help of her family and Jim, one of her late husband’s army friends. "I don’t really know how it happened," she says. "We’d been friends for a long time and he helped me a lot when Matthew died. One day we decided that we felt more for each other than just friendship."
Abby continues to enjoy close relations with Matthew’s family and they encouraged her to move on. She is planning to marry Jim in May 2011. "Family and friends, including some of Matthew’s family, will come to our wedding." Abby says. Jim has agreed that she should keep her first husband’s surname.
"Even when I remarry, I will still be married to Matthew. I will have one husband here and one in heaven," she continues. "I will never forget my husband, he is the father of my children and he will always be a big part of our lives. I will always love and miss him with all my heart."
Angela Nicholls, another English war widow, whose husband, Lance, was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, has not embarked on a new relationship. But she, too, believes that no one has the right to tell war widows what to do with the rest of their lives.
"There will always be people who judge us for what we do but these are people who don’t know us and don’t want to see us happy," she says.
In Kosovo, Flora Rexhepi struggles to live with the pain of her double loss: being widowed and then separated from her child. Her message to other women facing the same fate is simple and direct: "Never abandon your child for anything in the world."
Majlinda Aliu is a Pristina-based journalist. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.