Racak, Kosovo –A fresh layer of snow covers the muddy ditch in the hill overlooking the village of Racak in southern Kosovo.
Rocks with red paint pop out of the snow, marking the exact locations where 45 people from this village were killed on January 15, 1999.
Twenty years later, thousands of people in below freezing temperatures paid homage to one of the worst massacres during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War.
The memories of the fighting in the corner of the Balkans, then a province of Serbia after Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s, are still fresh.
“I feel like my pain increases every year, maybe because every year I understand better or maybe because of what others tell me about [my uncle] and how he treated us,” Egzon Bilalli, a 21-year-old psychology student, said after this year’s commemoration.
Only nine months old and hiding in a nearby city when the killings took place in his village, Bilalli remains connected to the events from that day.
He now lives in Racak and he and his relatives paint red marks every year in the ditch where his uncle and the others died that day.
Bilalli doesn’t want the village or the rest of the country and world to forget what happened here.
It was here in the ethnic Albanian village of Racak in southern Kosovo, about an hour from the capital, Pristina, where 45 men, women, teenagers and children were taken from their homes and beaten and shot by Yugoslav security forces in the hills above the village. The remains from one woman are still missing.
The bloodshed became a turning point in the conflict between the Serb-led Yugoslav security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the main ethnic Albanian rebel group fighting for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia after the breakup up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Veteran US diplomat William Walker visited the village one day after and publicly declared it as a massacre by Serb security forces, describing a “crime against humanity.”
This declaration garnered international attention and paved the way for the US-led NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo that began on March 24, 1999, and lasted for 78 days, driving out Slobodan Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo.
By the end of the air raids, Kosovo was liberated from Serbia. Today, Serbia still does not recognise Kosovo’s independence and claims that the crimes at Racak were staged by the KLA.
Though the KLA dismantled shortly after the war, NATO troops remain in Kosovo to keep the peace and security in Europe’s newest nation.
Muhamet Bilalli, 53, was one of the KLA soldiers fighting in Recak that morning to protect the residents from the advancing Serb security forces. He and his brother Lutfi Bilalli, Egzon’s uncle, had been working in Switzerland throughout the 1990s like many Kosovo Albanians during that time.
The siblings returned to Kosovo in 1998 to join the KLA.
On January 15, 1999, Lutfi was killed in Racak while helping residents to escape from the village.
“It doesn’t feel like 20 years; it feels like it happened today or yesterday. The memories are still fresh,” Muhamet Bilalli said.
He becomes anxious before every anniversary. “Since last night, I couldn’t get any sleep until now. I played the events in my head.”
To date, no one from Serbia has been brought to justice for the crimes that took place in Racak. “This hurts us the most. Where is the justice? Where is the EU and UN?”
Lutfi Bilalli’s daughter, Nerxhivane Bilalli, 29, still lives in Racak. She says it is difficult to live in the same place where her father died.
“Every morning when you leave the house, you see the place where the massacre happened which brings back the memories. But at least we have freedom.”
The 20th anniversary comes against the backdrop of a new special court set up in The Hague known as the Kosovo Specialist Chambers.
This week, several former KLA commanders were invited to The Hague either as suspects and witnesses, which has sparked controversy in Kosovo.
The new court will prosecute war crimes allegedly committed by KLA commanders during the war. Many in Kosovo believe that the court is one-sided.
Back at the Racak cemetery, residents continue to heal from their recent wartime past as they visit the graves of their relatives.
Beqe Beqiri, 40, a mechanic and former KLA fighter, lost his father and two brothers at Racak.
“It was a big tragedy when they killed my father and siblings, but having this tragedy happen to my family gave me some sort of strength.”
He and others from the village “still have pain from our wounds” from that day.
“The hardest and most humiliating part was knowing and not being able to stop the Serbs from putting the dead bodies into plastic bags and dragging them up the mountain so that they could cover their crimes,” he said. “It was very hard for me to see my dead father and brothers in that way.”
For Racak’s youth, they will continue to preserve the memories for future generations in order to remember the past.
“Even though most of us lost someone in the massacre,” said Egzon Billali said, “we still feel proud that they were the reason for us to keep living; we have to keep going.”