'They took him from my hands': Kosovo War massacre remembered

On April 27, 1999, Serbian forces killed 376 ethnic Albanian Muslims and Catholics in Meja as they sought refuge.

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    Shemsie Hoxha, 60, touches the grave of her son Ardian who was 14 when he was taken by Serb forces on April 17, 1999 and killed. 
 [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]
    Shemsie Hoxha, 60, touches the grave of her son Ardian who was 14 when he was taken by Serb forces on April 17, 1999 and killed. [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

    Meja, Kosovo - Hundreds of people on Saturday braved a spring downpour to remember the victims of the largest mass killing of the Kosovo War.

    The Meja massacre on April 27, 1999, came during the last conflict fought in Europe in the 20th century that killed more than 13,000 people.

    Sali Alijaj, 52, was one of the 376 ethnic Albanian Muslims and Catholics killed by Serbian police and army forces as families fled to neighbouring Albania to seek refuge from the brutal war in Kosovo, then a province of Serbia.

    Men were separated from the women and children and executed in a nearby field.

    "I lost my father in this massacre. It was a dangerous day; they could've taken me too. But thank God I survived," said Alijaj's son, 35-year-old Muharrem, at the Meja memorial complex in western Kosovo.

    He still remembers seeing his father for the last time in the Albania-bound refugee convoy.

    "He just looked at us sadly. But he was kind of happy that they didn't take me - at least one of us could be saved. But he still had a sad expression on his face," Muharrem said at his father's grave.

    People visit the graves of loved ones at the Meja memorial complex in western Kosovo on the 20th anniversary of the massacre [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

    He had travelled from Germany, where there is an Albanian diaspora community, to Meja.

    Sali Alijaj was taken from a tractor that he was driving with his family to escape the Serb forces surrounding his village.

    "I will never forget my brother. He was driving the [tractor] and the Serbs surrounded him. I had two of my nephews hidden in my clothes. One of them was the son of my brother that the Serbs took," said Sali Alijaj's 92-year-old sister, Sofe. "They pointed the gun at him on his back. We yelled and cried. But we couldn't do anything."

    Twenty years later, Sofe sill mourns the loss of her brother. 

    "[Those who were killed] will always be remembered. Any of us who had lost someone in the war has a wound in their hearts forever. You learn to live like that even though it's hard."

    Sisters Xufe Hoxha and Hate Jasiqi sit next to the grave of Xufe’s son who was killed on April 27, 1999 [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

    Government officials and members of the international community in Kosovo also attended the twentieth anniversary of the commemoration of the massacre, including Kosovo President Hashim Thaci and Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj - both high-ranking members of the Kosovo Liberation Army that fought for Kosovo's independence from Serbia - and the US Ambassador to Kosovo, Philip Kosnett, laying wreaths at the memorial.

    The US remains one of Kosovo's biggest supporters in post-war recovery and rebuilding of the nation after leading NATO's intervention that eventually removed Slobodan Milosevic's forces from Kosovo.

    "The trauma of Kosovo's own past touches every corner of this country - north and south - and extends beyond its borders. I have seen the same pain we see here today in the faces of the families of missing persons, and of survivors of wartime violence, from many regions and communities," Kosnett told mourners huddling under umbrellas.

    Nife Alijaj at the Meja memorial complex on the 20th anniversary of the massacre. Her husband Sali was killed in Meja on April 27, 1999 [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

    Spring in Kosovo brings back painful memories in Kosovo - the majority of war crimes took place during the season, when NATO launched 78 days of air attacks targeting Serbian military installations. Serb forces retaliated against the ethnic Albanian population and thousands were killed on both sides. 

    April 27 also marks the national day of missing people in Kosovo. Kosovans travelled from around the country to Meja with framed photos of their missing loved ones.

    Today, 1,650 people remain missing and unaccounted for since the end of the war.

    Hundreds of people pay homage at the Meja memorial complex in western Kosovo on the 20th anniversary of the massacre [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

    Despite the long-standing presence of EULEX, the EU's rule of law mission in Kosovo, and UNMIK, the UN mission in Kosovo, hundreds of Serbian war crimes cases are still unresolved. EULEX's mandate ended last year. Previously, it had inherited more than a thousand war-crime cases from UNMIK before handing over around 900 of them to Kosovo institutions.

    Shemsie Hoxha, 60, lost her husband and two sons at Meja. 

    "The youngest one was 16 and they took him from my hands. The eldest was 18 years old. My husband was 44. Ardian, the youngest was very tall and they took him from my hands. I insisted that my son is very young and that they don't have to take him, but they beat me and took him anyways," Hoxha said next to the three graves of her sons and husband. 

    "We were walking in the column, they didn't ask the age, they just separated men from us. They took them to a field. I stayed for an hour at the place they took my family members. I was hoping for a miracle. I was waiting for them to come back. [When they didn't return] we continued the road to Albania."

    A banner showing the photos and names of the 376 ethnic Albanians killed on April 27, 1999 in Meja, Kosovo [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

    Hoxha remained hopeful that her sons and husband would return. Immediately after the war ended in June 1999, she returned to the same field where she last saw her husband and sons.

    "The field was almost empty, but there were still some bodies in the field. But I couldn't find my children."

    A few years later, in 2005, the human remains of her sons and husband were found in a mass grave in Serbia, with the help of DNA testing, and returned to Meja to be buried. But the suffering has not ended. 

    "The pain and memories are the same 20 years later."

    Graves at the Meja memorial complex where 376 ethnic Albanians were killed on April 27, 1999 [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News