Pristina, Kosovo – For 16 years in one small village in Kosovo’s central region, the relatives of missing war victims visited empty graves.
Some had photographs, some did not. But it was at least a place where they could bring flowers, talk to the picture, and mourn the loss of a loved one whose body had not been found.
“We waited for a long time – 16 years,” said 62-year-old Habib Morina.
Morina’s brother, uncle, and cousins were killed in the early hours of April 17, 1999, in the village of Cikatova e Vjeter, allegedly by Serbian security forces, during the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo.
“We knew they were dead. But we wanted to know where the bodies were,” Morina said from a tent in the capital Pristina.
Ethnic-Serb President Slobodan Milosevic’s forces cracked down on separatist ethnic-Albanian rebels and their civilian supporters in the late 1990s. The conflict in Kosovo killed about 13,000 people, most of them ethnic Albanians.
By the time the war came to an end after 78 days of NATO air strikes, which drove out Milosevic’s military, police and paramilitary forces, an estimated 4,500 people were missing.
Another relative, 48-year-old Zylfije Morina, also lost her husband when he was killed in the same village. His body disappeared as well.
“It was very hard. It was even harder when we used to visit their empty graves,” she said.
The Morina family has waited since that fateful day to receive news that the remains of missing relatives had been found and a DNA or blood sample match had been made.
Last fall, they finally received the news and began making preparations for a proper reburial.
They chose April 17, 2015, the 16th anniversary of the massacre in Cikatova e Vjeter, as the day for the ceremony.
Habib Morina and his 29-year-old son, Behar, travelled to Kosovo from the US state of California, where they have lived as refugees since June 1999. They had come to join other relatives to finally bury the remains of 19 war victims from the Morina family who were found in a mass grave in Serbia last year.
Prenkë Gjetaj, head of the Kosovo government’s commission on missing persons, said to date 900 bodies had been found in mass graves in Serbia and transported to Kosovo. His office is responsible for coordinating with local and international partners on the process for finding missing war victims.
Gjetaj said last year the remains of 54 war victims, including those from the Morina family, were found in one mass grave in Rudnica, Serbia.
“Everything was done in order to hide the truth, the tracks of the crime,” Gjetaj said, describing how the army moved bodies of war victims from Kosovo to unidentified locations in Serbia, where many still lay hidden.
According to the commission, there are 1,650 people still missing from the war period.
More than 10,000 people had been killed and Gjetaj admitted the process of finding the missing is long and difficult, but, he said, “we must do it”.
With the help of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) – created in 1996 to help resolve the fate of those missing from the conflicts in the former Republic of Yugoslavia – blood samples from Kosovo’s war victims were analysed.
In an effort to show the country the missing war victims are not forgotten, this year, the government launched the country’s first “Missing Persons Week”, scheduled to coincide with the commemoration of the April 27, 1999 massacre in Meja, considered to be the worst massacre of the conflict.
A monument dedicated to the 1,650 still missing was unveiled recently in the garden of Kosovo’s parliament.
“To mark this date, we had activities for a week, by visiting family members, the places where the crimes took place, memorials, as a sign of honour, as a sign to show the people that we are still committed and working on shedding light on the fate of their most loved ones,” said Gjetaj.
Driton Morina, 34, remembers the sweater his father wore before he was killed. The sweater, along with other tattered clothing found with his father’s remains, was stiff from the dirt and dried mud.
Morina refused to bury the clothes with his father’s remains because he wanted to keep them as evidence for future generations that the crime happened. He said he hopes that one day they will be shown in a museum in Kosovo.
“The strange thing is that this happened in Europe, this happened in the Balkans, and the strange thing is that the new government in the country that committed these crimes is not apologising, is not saying even sorry for the crimes that they have done,” Morina said.
The day before the reburial, close relatives of the Morina family came to Pristina’s main hospital to sign the paperwork that they’ve officially collected the remains, which were laid out in coffins and draped with the Albanian flag.
Some family members insisted on seeing the bones and clothing found in the grave.
“Usually … we prefer for families not to open [the caskets], and to remember them as they were,” said Arsim Gerxaliu, head of the Department of Forensic Medicine under the Ministry of Justice.
“But some families insist on seeing the remains – the bones – and we cannot stop them because they have a right to check the bones,” Gerxaliu explained.
Forty-seven members of Gerxaliu’s family were killed in the war, and he said it is his responsibility to bring the remains of other war victims back to their families.
He said he had travelled to Serbia 97 times since 1999 to search for and exhume mass graves and is planning another trip this month.
“This number, 1,650, is still a problem until we find all of them, this problem will continue to exist,” said Kushtrim Gata, from the missing persons commission.
For Shqipron Morina, who was five years old when his father was killed in the Cikatova e Vjeter massacre, and for his family, the return of the remains from the mass grave brought relief.
“Now we have the real place, we have the bodies in the grave,” he said after burying his father.