Trapped in Black: Balkan War Widows

Majlinda Aliu Krusha e Madhe, Gjilan, Pristina, Vukovar and London

War widows throughout Europe may have shared a common fate, but their subsequent life experiences - from socially conservative Kosovo to liberal England- are radically different.

Arbeta Kryeziu has grown up. Almost 13, her face is taking on the shape of her mother’s. Looking at a picture of Arbeta as a child, her mother, Flora Rexhepi, looks tearful.

Flora was widowed when she was just 24, after Serbian forces killed her husband, Ramadan Kryeziu, in his home village of Sllovia in April 1999, during the war in Kosovo.

The exact death toll from the Kosovo conflict remains a subject of contention between Serbs and Albanians. However, the Kosovo office of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 Albanians and 2,000 to 2,500 Serbs, Roma, Bosniaks and other non-Albanians were killed from January 1998 to December 2000. Of that figure, they estimate that 8,895 victims were Kosovo Albanian males.

 Today, in Kosovo, according to the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, there are 5,052 war widows. Of that figure, only 20 have stopped receiving war widow pensions because they have remarried, the ministry says, which represents 0.4 per cent of the total.

Becoming a war widow was not Flora’s only catastrophe. After losing her husband, she had to give up her only child, who was then 18 months old, leaving Arbeta in the care of her late husband’s sister.

Flora was a victim of Kosovar society’s strict expectations of widows, and of war widows in particular.

Unlike their sisters in western Europe, they are not supposed to ‘move on’ but must remain in perpetual mourning for their late husband. Remarriage is strongly disapproved of - and children belong to the husband’s family, not to the widow’s.

Flora was sent back to her parents’ house in Gjilan, southeast Kosovo. The decision to return her there, and for her child to remain in Sllovia, a village 20km south of the capital, Pristina, was taken by the men of Flora’s own family and her late husband’s. She was not consulted. From now on, Flora was told, she would be Arbeta’s aunt, not her mother.

Flora flushes, remembering the moment when she had to surrender her baby. “When I left my daughter, it was very difficult. I was almost unconscious.”

Since then, Flora has suffered epileptic attacks. She didn’t see her daughter for six months, and when she did, it was a shock: “She didn’t recognize me, or know I was her mum. It was very difficult to keep the secret from my own child - to tell her I’m her aunt and not her real mother.”

Arbeta’s aunt and uncle raised her well and she never suspected anything. But when she was eight, her father’s family revealed the truth to her.

“When they told her I was her mother, she couldn’t believe it,” Flora recalls. “For weeks after, Arbeta would wake up in the night, thinking she’d had a nightmare.”

On learning the facts, Arbeta became colder towards Flora and even called her a liar. She could not excuse Flora for having abandoned her. Flora remembers her cutting words: “You shouldn’t have left me. Had you loved me, you wouldn’t have done it”.

Flora says she thought of taking Arbeta to live with her. But she never did so because she did not want “to hurt my father-in-law”, who had lost his son and his wife and saw Arbeta as the living memory of his dead son.

Flora was afraid that if she tried to reclaim her daughter, her father-in-law would be angry and not allow her to see her child any longer.

In 2006, Flora remarried a man more than 20 years older than her, whose wife had died since the war. She chose a much older husband because she thought he might be more understanding and allow her to retain contact with her daughter.

Now, although they do not live together, Flora meets her teenage daughter regularly. “Arbeta is jealous that I’m married,” she says. “Sometimes, she tells me I shouldn’t have married; I should just have remained a friend of my [current] husband.” Flora feels happy that at least her child still cares about her.

Mentality ‘slow to change’

Sibel Halimi, a sociologist at Pristina’s Institute of Gender Studies, says Kosovo’s historical and political circumstances have determined its harsh codes towards widows like Flora. “Lack of freedom has prevented people from appreciating the importance of freedom in every sphere,” she explains.

Flora’s second husband comes from Krusha e Madhe, a village where Serbian paramilitary forces carried out a grisly massacre in March 1999. Some 240 people were killed, leaving behind 140 widows and 502 orphans.

Few of those women have remarried. The rest, like Fahrije Hoti, have dedicated their lives to their children.  

Fahrije has remained a widow, though not one stuck at home. As head of a local NGO, Women of Krusha, a business which makes profit, she has struggled to persuade her conservative fellow villagers to accept that she would rather work than be economically dependent on her male relatives.

“The mentality in our country is slow to change,” she says. “In the beginning, it was difficult to make people understand that a woman can do business, drive a car and also take care of her family.

“But then a lot of women joined my business, which markets traditional organic food,” Fahrije adds, drawing on a cigarette. The role of head of the family has changed her appearance. Fahrije now cultivates a more masculine style.

The village mayor, Kadri Dellova, places no obstacles in her way. A sociologist, he believes that rural Kosovo is caught between the old and the new. “Kosovo is heading towards a ‘modern’ way of life, but it’s difficult to break old customs in traditional families,” he says.

Different rules for men

When it comes to the remarriage of widowers, however, the rules in Kosovo are totally different. Society treats these men as victims who require a new partner immediately.

Selmon Zeqiri, 42, from Celina, a village just a kilometre from Krusha e Madhe, lost 16 members of his immediate family, including his wife and two sons, in the conflict.

Only his youngest son, Valon, survived the 1999 massacre. After the war, he came back from Germany, where he had been working, to bury his dead.

The second step was to find someone to marry. His relatives joined the hunt. “At first, I was not very interested in remarrying but then I realised I needed someone to cook and clean for me and create a new family,” Selmon recalls.

Today, he lives in his rebuilt modest house with his second wife, Lavderije, and three daughters and two sons.  A divorcee, Lavderije, did not feel ready for a new relationship. “But my father asked me to marry Selmon,” she says.

Lavderije says that from childhood she felt discriminated against on the grounds of her gender. Her parents took her out of school early, saying her brothers were the priority. Gazing at her children, she wants to do things differently.

“I’m making a big effort to educate my daughters, so their future will be brighter,” she says.

The canon, code, or rule of Leke Dukagjini is a collection of Albanian laws dating back to time immemorial. Preserved for centuries by oral tradition, the laws were codified by a 15th-century prince, Leke Dukagjini, but were not written down until the 19th century. Dealing with all aspects of life, including relations between the sexes, murder, oaths, marriage and inheritance, the code remains a powerful influence in some rural communities, especially in northern Albania and Kosovo, where law enforcement is weakest. It is often blamed for the survival of long-lasting blood feuds between clans, the canon obliging families to take revenge for every murder on the basis of an-eye-for-an-eye.

Selmon is far more conservative. He would never have married Lavderije, he says, if she had brought with her children from her first marriage.

He doesn’t believe widows with children should remarry, either. According to him, they should sacrifice themselves for their children.

The different expectations placed upon war widows and widowers in Kosovo points to the existence of double standards elsewhere.

In theory, women in Kosovo enjoy equality before the law. In reality, they routinely encounter discrimination, especially in matters such as inheritance, lawyer Drita Hajdari explains.

Kosovo custom takes more notice of the Albanians’ traditional code, known as the Canon of Leke Dukagjini, than it does of the law, Hajdari says. According to the canon, daughters have no right to inherit a share of the family fortune.

Different again in Bosnia

Kosovo is not the only Balkan country recovering from a recent war. Almost 100,000 people died in the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995, according to the Research and Documentation Center (RDC) in Sarajevo.

Thousands of Bosnian women are also war widows. However, while attitudes to war widows are conservative in Bosnia, they are less rigid than in Kosovo.

Vukosava Klanco, a Bosnian Serb in her mid-forties, was widowed 15 year ago. Serbian paramilitaries killed her husband, Mujo, a Bosnian Muslim, in Vlasenica, eastern Bosnia, in 1992. Vukosava and Mujo met at school, fell in love and married when she was just 16. They had two children.

Becoming a widow and a single mother was hard. “When you lose your partner in such a way, you have a long, complex process to go through,” Klanco explains.

She took her children to live with her in Sweden and now divides her life between Stockholm and Tuzla in north-east Bosnia. “I was preoccupied, thinking about how to raise my children,” she recalls. “I dedicated my life to them.”

All these years she has remained unmarried. But she has worked hard on her two sons, trying to make them understand that while her love for their father will last forever, the time has come for her to move on.

“I’ve talked a lot to my sons and now they will absolutely accept it if I marry someone,” she says. “I didn’t want just to appear one day and tell them, ‘This is your step-father’”.

Though ready for a new relationship, she faces different obstacles to those confronting war widows in Kosovo, such as her own sense of independence.

“I don’t need a partner to finance me, buy me things and drive me round,” she says. “I’m a working woman. What I want is a friend to spend a life with, but it’s not that simple.”

Her friend, Hanifa Kicic, a Bosnian Muslim war widow whose husband and older son were killed in 1992, thinks differently.

Living in Tuzla, she has dedicated her life to her younger son and looks stressed when asked if she has ever thought of remarriage. “No, nobody could ever replace him,” she says of her late husband.

But Kicic’s disapproval of widows remarrying is partly based on financial factors, as well as a feeling that it is not right.

“Those who’ve remarried have faced economic problems because they lose their state war widows’ pension,” she says. “That’s why the majority didn’t remarry.”

A war widow’s pension in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is worth around 160 euros per month, which is more than the average pension. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the average pension in BiH was worth 126 euros per month in 2009.

War widows’ pensions in Kosovo are on a comparable level, worth 130 euros a month, according to the Ministry of Labour and Welfare. Moreover, this is more than four times the average pension of about 40 euros a month.

Freer in England

The Balkans is not the only region in Europe where women have lost husbands recently in war. Thirty-one-year-old Abby Cornish from Kent, southeast England, and her two children, were one of many families left without a husband and father as a result of Britain’s military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those conflicts have claimed more than 500 British soldiers’ lives since 2001.

Abby’s husband, Matthew, was killed in Iraq on August 1, 2006, serving in the British Army. He was at a base camp when a mortar struck and the shrapnel entered his brain.

“I just couldn’t believe it, I felt sick and it hurt so much,” Abby recalls. “I just wanted him back; I didn’t think I could cope without him.”

Matthew’s body was flown home and he was buried on August 17, one day before the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. “It was hard to watch the children growing up without their dad, who loved them so much,” Abby says.

But she coped with the help of her family and of Jim, one of her late husband’s army friends. Taking care of Abby and her children, they became close.

 “I don’t really know how it happened,” she recalls. “We’d been friends for a long time and he helped me a lot when Matthew died. One day we decided that we felt more for each other than just friendship.”

When he moved into the family home, her children were content because they were used to him. She continues to enjoy close relations with Matthew’s family and they encouraged her to move on. Now she is planning to marry Jim in May 2011.

“Family and friends, including some of Matthew’s family, will come to our wedding.” Abby says. Jim has agreed that she should keep her first husband’s surname. “Even when I remarry, I will still be married to Matthew. I will have one husband here and one in heaven,” she continues.

“I will never forget my husband, he is the father of my children and he will always be a big part of our lives. I will always love and miss him with all my heart.”

Change on the way?

Back in Kosovo, there are calls for attitudes to change towards widows and war widows in particular. A persistent campaign is needed to change old mentalities, says lawyer Drita Hajdari. A widow in her forties, she is economically independent, open-minded and definitely does not dress in black.

As the people of independent Kosovo search for new models to live by, they should draw on the best examples from the region and the rest of Europe, sociologist Sibel Halimi says.

“We have the right to be happy and not to be judged by ‘moral police’,” says Vukosava Klanco on behalf of all women, widows or not, who live in conservative, illiberal societies.

Angela Nicholls, another English war widow, whose husband, Lance, was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, has not embarked on a new relationship. But she, too, believes that no one has the right to tell war widows what to do with the rest of their lives.

“There will always be people who judge us for what we do but these are people who don’t know us and don’t want to see us happy,” she says.

In Kosovo, Flora Rexhepi lives with the pain of her double loss: being widowed and then separated from her child. Her message to other women facing the same fate is simple and direct: “Never abandon your child for anything in the world.”

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.

Fellow Bio


Majlinda Aliu

Majlinda Aliu is a Pristina-based journalist working for Radio Television Kosovo, reporting on political and social affairs. She previously worked for Koha Vision TV, also in Pristina

The Project

Tradition keeps Kosovo’s war widows in black

The war in Kosovo in the late 1990s left a large number of women, some very young, as widows.


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