PRISTINA -- Nesrete Kumnova walks beside a wall in the Kosovar capital, Pristina, on which hang the portraits of hundreds of young men and women. She gently places her hands on their faces, as if they were standing in front of her.
But they're not standing in front of her, and they never will. The 331 photographs represent a fraction of the more than 2,000 Kosovars still missing and presumed dead following the end of the 1998-99 war. The war pitted Yugoslav and Serbian security forces on one side and the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) and, eventually, NATO forces on the other.
As the founder of the nongovernmental organization Mothers' Cries, Kumnova is dedicated to resolving the fates of those who vanished, and, if possible, seeing their remains returned.
Kumnova knows firsthand the anguish felt by the families of the missing, or the "not found," as she prefers to call them.
On March 31, 1999, Serbian security forces entered Kumnova's hometown of Gjakova, in western Kosovo, on the border with Albania. They separated the men from the women, and took the men away at gunpoint.
Albion Kumnova, who was last seen on March 31, 1999.
Albion, the only son of Muharrem and Nesrete Kumnova, was among them.
Like the 2,000 other mothers in Kosovo, Kumnova doesn't know what happened to her child, who was 20 years old when he disappeared. She knows only that he is dead and that his remains are out there, somewhere.
Since the end of the war, the bodies of hundreds of victims of both Serbian and UCK atrocities have been discovered in mass graves. Many of these remains lie in morgues, awaiting positive identification.
It's a painful subject that neither the Serbi nor the Kosovar government has shown much enthusiasm for revisiting. Authorities on both sides have been criticized for not doing enough to locate and exhume such graves. And as the international community, and Kosovo itself, wrestles with the ramifications of its declaration of independence from Serbia in February, there are many who believe Kumnova's quest is simply reopening old wounds.
Kumnova believes true reconciliation and stability cannot happen unless the issue of the missing is dealt with openly. Silence is the enemy.
Albion's photograph is one of the 331 hanging on that fence outside the Kosovar parliament. At Kumnova's urging, the pictures were first placed there in January 2005 by those families willing to participate. And there they have remained, through rain, snow, and sun.
"This way, those who see themselves as policymakers face the eyes of those missing people," Kumnova says.
The faces seem to follow passersby around the center of the city.
“That was the point," Kumnova says. "As simple as that."
'Doves That Have Fled The Nest'
Nesrete Kumnova was born 55 years ago in Gjakova, on the banks of the river Erenik. The city where she was born and where she still lives with her husband, Muharrem, an electrician, suffered terribly during the war.
The majority of the population of the Gjakova district was forcibly expelled by Serb and Yugoslav security forces. Atrocities were committed against the local population. Large sections of the city were looted and set on fire. Gjakova was also the place where more than 70 Albanian refugees were mistakenly killed in a NATO air strike in April 1999.
Before the war, Kumnova worked quietly as a saleswoman, little known beyond her circle of friends and family. She founded Mothers’ Cries immediately after the end of the war and today is widely known for her efforts on behalf of grieving mothers across Kosovo. She sees herself as a humanitarian warrior. Others know her as the "iron lady" who cannot be broken.
She has knocked on every possible door, asking that all legal means be used to pressure those who know what happened to account for the missing, asking for firm commitments by international and local authorities to help gather needed information on the whereabouts of the missing.
Kumnova (foreground center) has met with many international officials, including then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (standing center), who told families of the missing that their loved ones "are like doves that have fled the nest."
The issue of missing persons has been regarded as a "technical issue" during talks between Kosovo and Serbia, a designation Kumnova adamantly opposes.
"This is not a technical issue -- as they were presenting it -- but rather a humanitarian issue," she says. Any other approach would represent what she calls a violation of human emotions, as well as of international human rights standards.
She believes that shedding light on the fate of missing persons won't happen through such talks, but only by major pressure being exerted on the highest-ranking authorities in Serbia. Ten staff members work toward that end at Mothers' Cries in Gjakova. The NGO subsists on small donations and assistance from municipal authorities.
Resolving the fate of the missing should not be an issue only for families," she says, "but for the institutions, too -- local and international."
Kumnova has met with all of Kosovo's presidents and prime ministers, as well as leading international figures, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Maybe this way we can remind the world that our nightmare is not over yet.
"She became a spokesperson for all mothers who search for their missing children," says Idriz Gashi, the director of public information for the International Red Cross in Pristina, who has known Kumnova since 2000. "With her efforts, she did a lot to raise this issue and inform public opinion in Kosova and abroad. She had very high-level contacts. She still knocks on different doors to make the issue of missing persons a priority on the agenda of the international community, as well as on Kosova's agenda."
Kumnova recalls the meeting she had in Pristina with Annan. Kumnova says Annan tried telling her and the families she represents that their loved ones are most likely dead. "But he also said something which I will cherish forever," she says. He suggested, she says, that "our sons and daughters are like doves that have fled the nest."
From 2005 to 2007, Kumnova chaired the Kosovar government's Commission on Missing Persons, during which it was said her criticism of the government's efforts to locate the missing softened.
"I think that, despite the fact that she was obliged to keep the governmental line, she worked with great zeal," Gashi says. "Being inside the government didn’t stop her from expressing regret for the lack of coordinated governmental work about the missing persons issue."
Prenk Gjota, the current head of the commission, believes Kumnova, during her own time there, had to confront major obstacles.
"She was affected as a mother, because her son is still missing," Gjota says. "[Secondly,] it wasn’t easy for her, because the issue of missing persons was politicized here, and still it is difficult to find the truth.... I really applaud her work, as well as the efforts of all of the people who are dealing with this sensitive issue."
Some criticize Nesrete Kumnova (second from right) as being too old to participate in protests organized by Mothers' Cries.
Others have criticized Kumnova as being too old to engage in the kinds of protests that Mothers' Cries participates in in an effort to keep the issue on the front burner. In one incident, Kumnova was arrested and dragged down the street by law-enforcement authorities after they said her protests were "obstructing" the freedom of movement of local and international authorities. On August 31, 2004, she was arrested after police intervened, an event which she regarded as shameful.
"Those police officers are really strong," she says, smiling gently, recalling the incident. "Once they grab you, you can’t run."
In November 2004, Mothers' Cries began a three-day protest by blocking all main streets in Pristina in an effort to win a stronger commitment by international and local authorities in solving the issue of missing persons.
"We selected this crossroad because calls to learn the fate of our most beloved ended up on deaf ears," she said at the time. "Maybe this way we can remind the world that our nightmare is not over yet."
Kumnova and others have also participated in numerous 24-hour protest fasts on New Year's Eve in the halls of parliament, demanding a more aggressive approach by local and international authorities. During these fasts, the pictures of the missing hanging on the wall outside parliament are replaced, re-laminated, and rehung.
'She Just Doesn't Stop'
Kumnova is aided in her work by her sister, Ferdeze Efendia, whose own son, Artan, was also rounded up by Serb forces on the same night Albion went missing.
Artan's body was found five years later in a mass grave in Batajnica, near Belgrade.
Efendia says she feels guilty that Artan's remains were found, while Kumnova continues the search for her only son.
She just doesn't stop. Only God knows what keeps her going.
""I don’t know where she finds the energy; she just doesn’t stop," Efendia says, tears running down her cheeks. "Only God knows what keeps her going."
Gashi of the International Red Cross in Pristina says Kumnova "cannot agree with destiny."
"First of all, we have to see her as a mother, who perseveres for her missing son," Gashi says. "She fights as a mother. She will fight until she understands the truth."
Greeted With Roses
When the bodies of the missing are discovered and exhumed, their remains are repatriated inside white forensic plastic bags. Kumnova can always be found at the border crossing between Serbia and Kosovo to welcome the handover, red roses in hand. She carries those bags with the same love and kindness she displays when she's caressing the faces of the missing on that wall in Pristina.
Kumnova attends the funeral of an ethnic-Albanian man whose remains were found in a mass grave.
Mothers' Cries cooperates closely with the Office on Missing Persons and Forensics, the UN office that deals with identification issues, as well as with the Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons, which deals with DNA analysis. Kumnova's daily work consists of contacting local and international authorities to keep the issue alive, contacting the families of the missing, and assisting the authorities on identifying remains by providing information from the database maintained by Mothers' Cries.
Most of those still missing from the Kosovo war are ethnic Albanians -- some 1,300, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross -- but around 500 are Serbs, and 200 others are Roma or from other ethnic groups.
Those who work for Mothers' Cries do not acknowledge ethnicities or borders, an ambition that hasn't been made easier by Kosovo's declaration of independence earlier this year, which only increased historic tensions.
"We are committed to resolving the fate of every missing person in Kosovo," Kumnova has said. "We do not make distinctions based on ethnic, religious, or racial background. These are all missing persons, and their families live in anxiety until their fate is discovered."
Kumnova (third from right) waits at the Merdare border crossing in Serbia for the remains of ethnic-Albanian citizens exhumed from mass graves.
Although Kumnova's personal experience is tragic, the word "hatred" doesn't exist in her vocabulary. That doesn't mean she's not angry, however. Although she's famous for her gentle smile, she gets visibly upset when talking about the attitudes of local and international authorities, whom she believes do not take the issue of missing persons seriously enough.
"We told each and every person with the capability to pressure Serbian authorities and to gather information on the whereabouts of the missing the exact time and place when our loved ones were taken, and by whom," she says. "All these facts just ended up in their [desk] drawers.”
Nevertheless, the quest to locate and identify the missing has not been without its successes. More then 1,700 bodies discovered in mass graves in Kosovo and Serbia have been positively identified so far. And Kumnova can say she has played a major role in this regard.
"I promise you, we are the same mothers that we were eight years ago," Kumnova says, the determination evident in her voice. "And we will continue our pressure, demanding to know the fate of our children, no matter the cost."
correspondent Albana Isufi contributed to this story from Pristina