Over two decades after the devastating Kosovo war, mothers still search for their missing children

Ferdonije Qerkezi recalls every agonising detail of the day Serbian police took away her family. 

She remembers which chairs they sat on, and the way their leader – a local officer who had frequented the family’s kebab shop – ordered her to provide rakija brandy, then coffee, then made her make another one without sugar.

And she remembers how finally the police ordered her husband Halim and two other men outside, then returned, this time in balaclavas, and took away her sons Artar, Armand, Ardian, and Edmund. 

“My soul will never have peace,” said Mrs Qerkezi, who has preserved the empty family home in an effort to cling to the memory of her husband and children.

“The international community call on us to look to the future and forget the past. But how can I forget the five members of my family who were killed? We sent documents to the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. It seems as if they just didn’t care."

About 13,000 people were killed in the 1998-99 war between Serbian security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an ethnic Albanian guerrilla group, before the conflict ended with Nato intervention.

Thousands more suffered “enforced disappearance” – the lawyerly euphemism for abduction and murder by security forces when the perpetrators successfully hide the bodies.

Ferdonije Qerkezi has preserved the empty family home in an effort to cling to the memory of her husband and children

Credit: Eddie Mulholland

Most of the missing are ethnic Albanian men, plucked from their homes or hauled out of refugee columns by Serbian forces. Hundreds of Serbian civilians, again mostly men, vanished in revenge attacks after the end of the war in July 1999.

It remains a point of political confrontation amid European attempts to bridge the divide between Pristina and Belgrade.

When Albin Kurti, the current prime minister of Kosovo, last saw Alexander Vucic, the current president of Serbia, face-to-face during EU-brokered dialogue this summer, the talks collapsed in acrimony as the pair accused one another of obstructing justice for the crimes.

In the two decades since the end of the war, forensic teams have unearthed hundreds of bodies in multiple unmarked mass graves in Kosovo and Serbia. In 2005, the remains of Artan and Edmund Qerkezi were found in separate locations near the town of Priszen.

But many, including the rest of Mrs Qerkezi’s family, are still missing.

The families on either side of the ethnic divide share an enduring agony of uncertainty that makes the discovery of a mass grave an occasion for both hope and despair, and a disillusionment bordering on fury with the slow pace of investigations that were meant to catch the killers.

“The priority is to find out what happened. Afterwards we would wait for justice,” said Silvana Marinkovic, an ethnic Serb who has been searching for her husband Goran since he went missing on July 19, 1999.

Mrs Marinkovic quickly established from an Albanian friend that Goran and two other men he was with were stopped by gunmen at a checkpoint in the nearby village of Labjane.

Silvana Marinkovic has been searching for her husband Goran since he went missing on July 19, 1999

Credit: Eddie Mulholland

The three, she says, were initially held at a disused school in Mramor, a village east of Pristina, and later to another prison in the town of Zllash.

She says British soldiers in Pristina ignored her when she pleaded with them to investigate. When Nato-led peacekeeping troops did eventually search the Zllash facility two weeks later, it was empty. It is now at the centre of a war crimes trial in the Hague.

Over the years Mrs Marinkovic has grown weary of repeatedly submitting the same information to a procession of international agencies and investigators, and drained by the forlorn hopes that maybe, somewhere, Goran is still alive, or that his killers will be punished.

“Sometimes I hope they will release him and he will be free. Then sometimes I think he was killed in the Yellow house,” she added, referring to a farm in Albania at the centre of unsubstantiated allegations of organ harvesting by the KLA.

“It is just like the Albanian mothers who lost their sons. We talk to each other. The majority of us still have this hope. You can visit a grave, light a candle. But this uncertainty, it kills you. "

Some justice has been done.

In 2014 a UN court in the Hague jailed Vlastimir Djordjevic, the head of the Interior Ministry’s Public Security Department during the war, for crimes including trying to conceal the scale of the mass murders by Serbian security forces.

He was found to have have ordered a cover up that saw 744 murdered Kosovo Albanians’ bodies secretly buried at a police training base near Belgrade.

Ethnic Albanian boys play war games January 10, 2001 in a Klina, Kosovo neighborhood

Credit: Darko Bandic/Hulton Archive

Last year another special court in The Hague indicted four former KLA commanders including Hashim Thaci, who served as Kosovo’s first prime minister from 2008 to 2014 and later as president. Hearings started this summer.

Another of the accused, Salih Mustafa, is charged with mistreating prisoners at the detention facility in Zllash where Mrs Marinkovic believes her husband was held.

However, large numbers of lower-level perpetrators – the Serbian soldiers or policemen or KLA fighters who families believe actually carried out atrocities – are still at large.

Dragan – the first name by which Mrs Querkezi knew the police officer who led the group who arrested her family – was a well known local cop.

She confronted him about her family’s fate two months after their arrest. He was, she said, "very kind and polite," but denied any knowledge of her husband and sons’ fate.

After the war, he fled Kosovo. She suspects he is in Montenegro or Serbia and being protected by authorities there.

Mrs Marinkovic similarly believes one of the KLA men who arrested her husband is now a serving policeman in Gracanica.

“He claims he wasn’t there that day, but I know he was. People told me he was," she said. "Of course no one wants to admit to the crime that was committed.”

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