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All that Remains: Life, Death and Rebirth

Kosova 1996-2003

This photographic project focuses on the Albanians of Kosova, a province of the former Yugoslavia. Some of the people I met on my first two trips there now live in Austin, Texas, having been forced to leave by the Serbs during the civil war in 1999. I continue to document their lives in Texas and life in Kosova itself, returning there on a yearly basis.

“Into the mystic” might be the best way to describe my first trip to this region of the Balkans. I knew not one Albanian and, in 1992, no guidebooks were available. That situation changed upon my return to Austin, where I began to connect with the small Albanian community. One of the people I met was a woman from Kosova, Aferdita Dauti, the wife of an Austin doctor; the two met in Prishtina, the capital of Kosova, where he was working for Doctors of the World. After I had made several trips to Albania, she urged me to expand my project into neighboring Kosova, then part of the former Yugoslavia and 90 percent Albanian, most of them nominally Muslim.

Yugoslavia granted autonomy to the province of Kosova in 1974; in 1989, after increasing calls for independence by the Albanian majority, the Serbian government revoked that autonomy. Albanian Kosovars lost their jobs and schools and were subjected to harassment and worse for the most minor offenses.

Although they share a similar ethnic make-up, Albania and Kosova resonate differently; I realized that after being detained by Serbian officials in Prishtina in 1996. My crime? Taking a photo of the television station. Ethnic Albanians had no rights in Yugoslavia after 1989; I, a foreigner, had none either, as this encounter made me understand. Meanwhile, life in Albania was over the top; everyone figured on being millionaires soon, as they poured more and more leks into pyramid investment schemes. In 1997, when those schemes crashed, anarchy followed. Weapons stolen at that time eventually made their way into the hands of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) next door.

My friend Aferdita taught me a few things about Kosova, a place I didn’t know existed until I met her and her extended family. They welcomed me, a stranger, into their lives and became my family, my home away from home. Dita has been the key to my understanding Kosova and the Albanians. Her family’s journey from Kosova to Texas is the inspiration for this project. During our long friendship I have witnessed the birth of her son, danced at a cousin’s engagement party and wept at the death of friends who died at too early an age.

With the emergence of the KLA in 1998, the balance between the Serbs and Albanians in Kosova began to change. The conflict between the two ethnicities, simmering for years, now boiled out of control. The Serbs went after the rebels with a vengeance, slaughtering whole families suspected of having KLA ties. Thousands of ethnic Albanians were forced to flee to other countries. The United States and its allies resolved to stop yet another orgy of ethnic cleansing, and on March 24, 1999, NATO began bombing Yugoslavia. It continued to do so for over two months, until Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic withdrew his troops from the province. Kosova was placed under the protection of the United Nations, and its inhabitants began to rebuild their lives. Milosevic died while standing trial at The Hague on charges of genocide.

When I first visited Kosova in 1996, the people I met seemed overwhelmed by despair. They remain in despair and the fate of Kosova is still undecided. The Albanians seek independence; the Serbs want Kosova to remain part of the last remnant of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia.

The strength and resilience of the Albanian people are astounding; I want those who view my photographs to experience those qualities. My first travels in the region were strange enough to seem hallucinogenic; this very strangeness has informed and inspired my work since then, giving me an understanding of a different socio-political landscape.