Alice's Kosovo Photo Diary 2016
Aftermath of the conflict
"I was taken to where the war began in Prekaz. After many years of conflict throughout Kosovo, a whole family of sixty were massacred in their beds in the most beautiful, tranquil, picturesque village. I couldn't believe the house was left the same as it had been sixteen years earlier when the guns, shells and mortars were blasted through the walls. Only two innocent children walked away from the three-day siege and one was shot upon escaping, leaving only one boy of twelve years old to identify the bodies of his whole family. I learned this information from a teary-eyed young man who took me on a tour of the houses and the surrounding area, who told me it was important that people understood what had happened here. He showed me the wooden sideboard which had hidden the survivor, miraculously unmarked by bullet holes whilst everything in the surrounding radius was destroyed. The place was so still and I felt utterly consumed with sadness. A group of kids approached on skateboards with big smiles and Nike Air trainers, looking like any other group of teenagers, which was quite a juxtaposition against the serious soldiers guarding the sixty graves. My tour guide explained these were the boy's children; the new family from a perished generation, each one named after a fallen relative. I couldn't quite believe they lived in this setting with this burden over their heads every day but they looked happy, and it was all they knew. As we left the tour guide refused my tip, saying it wasn't about money, he just wanted to get the story out there. I was so moved by the whole day but particularly by his integrity."
The women's stories
"Whilst walking around Illiriana told me her story and those of others she knew. I said she should write a book, to which she replied, 'why me, when everybody I know had experiences far worse than mine?' She told me how she had been a refugee with two young boys (the same age as mine, six and eight years old). The thought of walking across my country down death road, with nothing but the clothes I stood in, fearful for my life and those of my two precious babies, doesn't bear thinking about. It resonated with me so much and made me think how lucky we all are, after all, we don't choose where we're born. The people of this community had overcome and survived war, yet they have no treatment for the traumas they endured. They just have to carry on and live.
On the second day, I met the wonderful Erdita who drove me out into the countryside, where I was honoured to meet the women graduating from Women for Women International's courses. They were so excited and gave me three kisses and big hugs. I have never felt such warmth from a community in my life and was well aware it wouldn't be the same in my local village hall. Erdita was so inspiring and you could see every single woman loved attending the monthly meetings.
I gave a presentation to the group and they got the best out of me with enthusiastic smiles, laughter and encouraging glances. I have never felt like a Hollywood superstar or royalty before but that moment was the closest I've got, because of their incredible generosity and warm welcome. Afterwards, we sat in Minere's living room, it was bricks and concrete yet she made it feel so warm and homely. She told me about her thirteen children and how the best thing to happen to her since joining the Women for Women International program was the sex education she had received. She felt so empowered after having the coil fitted and that she could scare her husband off with tall tales of what could happen. She felt in control of her own body again."
"Whilst I was teaching jewellery making and product making classes, the women liked the jewellery examples and passed them around, but nothing could have prepared me for the pure excitement and interest they had for the '10 Things I Love About You Box'. It was more achievable and affordable than gold and silver as it is made simply from paper. As I explained how it worked; you can personalise 10 scrolls showing all the things you love about someone who goes into the box, I could see people's eyes lighting up. I asked everyone to write a list of 10 things they love about themselves in the special personalised journals I had made for each of them. One woman cried during a workshop when I talked about how a customer had requested her father's dying words on a bangle. I never found out her story but this really resonated with her."
"Violetta told me how she had just opened her first shop and I felt many parallels with my own business set up; she had the same hopes, dreams and fears for her business as I do in the UK. Violetta also recounted the fears she'd had when she'd been a refugee. She gave birth to her first child during the war without any help or support, hiding in a bunker with her child whilst bombs dropped all around her. The feeling of claustrophobia, the sound of the bomb blasts and the smell of putrid death meant she would rather die than remain in the bunker so she walked with her newborn to freedom, as a refugee. Death was inevitable if they had stayed so she felt she had no choice. Violetta should have been in hospital but instead, she walked for 5 days with blood running down her legs and her baby unwashed without even a nappy. Her baby son was so ill but she continued to walk with hundreds of other people, trying to reach safety in Macedonia. Like everyone else, she spoke of the overwhelming embrace she received when she crossed the border. Violetta talked of how protective she is over her boy and how her other children say it's favouritism, she said maybe it is, but you can't go through something like that and not have a special connection."
"Kimete had real spirit and guts. She tried three times to get out of the city, by every time she and her young family were sent back. She described the fear, frustration and despair of returning to the war-torn city. Kimete opened up her tiny home to seventeen families with whom she shared her food, bed and clothes with.
One day her flat was raided by the Serbian police who were looking for her. She realised at this point that there was no hope left, bombs were being dropped on the city and above everything else she had to save her children.
Kimete heard about a last bus leaving for the border. She begged to be let on, offering money, jewellery, her house, but was not let on. As she began to walk away with her young children she noticed one of the back windows of the bus was open, so she pushed her babies through it, thinking at least they might have a chance for survival. Luckily Kimete was eventually reunited with her family and got across the border too.
She was so incredibly brave and resilient but there was a sadness in her eyes when she talks about the present day and future. Having survived a war, the aftershock is taking its toll. Her children, now grown up, didn't get an education and can't find work. Her family's only form of income is the handicrafts she sells through Women for Women International. Kimete feels that hope is gone for her now, but she prays for hope for her children and grandchildren."
"Illiriana had trained as a doctor but was not able to finish her studies as all schools, universities and hospitals were closed down in her final year. I asked her if she protested and marched, she said 'Of course I did, as did thousands of others, but what hope was there when no one recognised us as citizens'. Illiriana describes herself as a refugee. She was told to get rid of her legal papers for her own safety and to walk to freedom in a border country. Leaving everyone behind she walked with her children for days and days, feeling hopelessly lost like everyone else. She saw a sick old woman at the side of the street and felt compelled to help her, but the Serbian army wouldn't let her stop and she had to move on, for fear they would beat her. Illiriana, like everyone else, kept repeating the same mantra of how she was embraced and welcomed across the border. The trauma was great and she still feels pain today when thinking about it, but the kindness of strangers is what got her through it.
Illiriana said we are all human kind and we should show kindness and support for one another not fight against each other. She has helped to get Serbian communities involved in projects which is an amazing feat considering they still live in separate enclaves and that there is still a massive divide. Her work is changing mindsets and it will have a huge impact on the communities of Kosova, but there is still a long way to go."
The Personalised 'Share a Hug' Necklace
"I was really moved by the warmth and acceptance of the Kosovan women, so chose to make a necklace that symbolises how they embraced one another and how they embraced me. Their personal stories of being a refugee had such an impact on me, how they all felt so lost and without hope, but yet when they crossed the border to safety they were 'embraced' by caring and generous people. They all felt so saddened for the refugees of today, who have no embrace or acceptance at the other end.
I hope the Personalised 'Share a Hug' Necklace I have made will resonate with as many people as possible. The expression of a hug has such a positive meaning across the world, especially in these difficult times. I am giving 100% of the proceeds to Women for Women International, to support the women and families in Kosovo and all over the world who are going through war and conflict. Please join me and 'share a hug' today."
Purchase the Personalised 'Share a Hug' Necklace in sterling silver/ 9ct gold plate here
Purchase the Personalised 'Share a Hug' Necklace in solid 9ct gold here
Women for Women International UK Charity Registration Number: 1115109
Photography by award-winning photojournalist Hazel Thompson