This picture of a mourning family, taken by Georges Merillon in 1990, became an emblem of the suffering of Kosovar Albanians. Almost a decade later, the photographer returned to war-ravaged Kosovo to search for the women whose grief he captured. By Raymond Whitaker
Sunday 18 July 1999
But photography also records history: Nasimi Elshani was one of Slobodan Milosevic's earliest victims in Kosovo. He died in January 1990, shot by Serbian police at Brestovc, western Kosovo. Mourning Nasimi are his elder sister, Ryvije, howling with grief; his mother, Sabrie, calmer, with hands outstretched; his younger sister, Aferdita, staring warily at Merillon's camera.
A few months earlier Milosevic had begun the process of stamping out the autonomy of the province, by declaring a state of emergency and forcing through constitutional amendments which gave Serbia control of Kosovo's affairs. But nobody could then imagine how far Milosevic was prepared to go in suppressing the Albanian majority in Kosovo. Although up to 100 demonstrators were killed and thousands more put on trial in 1989, protests continued into 1990. Elshani and three of his friends were killed as they headed for a demonstration in Orahovac, a town that was to figure again in the catalogue of crimes against Kosovar Albanians.
So was Elshani's village, Nagafc, where Merillon photographed the vigil on 29 January 1990. His picture, the World Press Foundation's photograph of the year in 1991, made many people aware for the first time of the suffering in what was then a little-known corner of the Balkans. But for much of the Nineties events in Kosovo were obscured by the agonies of Croatia, Bosnia and the other victims of Yugoslavia's bloody collapse.
Nasimi's family carried on with their lives as Kosovo was Serbianised. Sabrie remained in the home where she had given birth to her children and seen her son laid out in death. Ryvije lived with her son in a nearby village. Aferdita, 16 when her brother died, became engaged to a teacher from a village 18 miles off, but the wedding was postponed several times, the last time because of the Serbian offensive against the Kosovo Liberation Army last autumn.
The KLA arose in response to international neglect of the Kosovo problem and years of fruitless passive resistance by Kosovar Albanians. The savagery of the Serbian backlash finally punctured world indifference, and last October Milosevic agreed to a ceasefire and the presence of unarmed international monitors in Kosovo. Reassured by this, Aferdita finally left her mother's home to marry Samedin on 3 January this year.
But Kosovo was far from being at peace. Within a fortnight of the wedding 45 villagers were massacred by the Serbs at Racak, setting off the train of events which culminated in war with Nato. While Western commanders were drawing up target lists, the Serbs made plans to kill or drive out every Albanian in Kosovo. The implementation of this scheme in Nagafc is described in the indictment issued against Milosevic by the international war crimes tribunal based in The Hague. In March, it informs us, some 8,000 Kosovar Albanians took refuge in the mountains near Nagafc. They were then surrounded by Yugoslav police and soldiers, and herded into Nagafc and other villages. The inhabitants took as many in as possible, but dozens had to sleep in cars or tractors. "On April 2," the indictment reads, "Yugoslav forces and Serbian forces shelled the villages, killing a number of persons who were sleeping on tractors or in cars. Survivors headed for the Albanian border." Among these were Sabrie, who had already seen her home destroyed, and Ryvije.
The newly-wed Aferdita remained in her adopted village, Potocan, throughout the war, though she and her husband had to take refuge with a cousin after Serbian soldiers requisitioned their house. Before they fled, she just had time to bury her wedding pictures and the photographs of her brother's funeral in the garden.
Aferdita's action demonstrates another role of photography - as an affirmation of identity. The Serbs sought to strip Albanians of their claim to Kosovo by taking away their ID cards and car numberplates, but these hidden photographs belied such efforts to destroy history: they asserted the right of the people pictured in them to the very soil in which they had been buried. The first thing Aferdita did after the Serbs left Kosovo was to dig up these records of her life and Nasimi's death.
And with the Nato forces came Georges Merillon, looking for the people he had photographed more than nine years earlier. He found Aferdita, and recorded her reunion with her mother and older sister. He was with them as they recounted what had happened during the war, when Aferdita thought she recognised some clothing thrown into a well as her mother's, and believed her dead. He accompanied them back to Nagafc, where the home he had visited in 1990 was a burnt-out ruin. In the garden, though, Nasimi Elshani's grave was intact.
Kosovar Albanians have regained their rights a decade after losing them, but the cost has been fearful. Tens of thousands have now died in the same cause as Nasimi, most of them in the past 12 months. The survivors, meanwhile, are struggling to renew their lives in the ruins of their homes.
But if Milosevic and his followers succeeded in traumatising Kosovo, they failed to wipe out the Albanians' identity. Through all the horrors of the past months and years, the thread of memory has remained intact, and in that too photography has played its part. 2
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