Ferdonije Qerkezi, 65, surrounded by her boys’ toys, photographs and shoes Image Credit: Bloomberg

Nesrete Kumnova has spent the last two decades looking for the body of her only son. Twenty-two at the time and an aspiring pharmacist, Albion was snatched in his slippers on March 31, 1999, a week after Nato forces entered the war between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the former Yugoslav province of Kosovo. There’s a picture of him in her office in the war-scarred town of Gjakova, opposite a floor-to-ceiling montage of photos of some of the 1,500 other people from the area missing or declared dead.

Kumnova’s yearning to find her son’s remains and lay them to rest has recently been overtaken by anger. But, for once, it’s not just aimed at the Serbs she says took him.

Under pressure from the US and European Union, the Kosovo and Serb leaders are trying to reach an agreement to mend relations. That could lead to the carving up of her homeland at the negotiating table while the legacy of the last attempt on the battlefield still lingers.

“First they have to resolve the problem of the war, resolve the missing people, justice, damages,” says Kumnova, 67, founder of the Mothers’ Appeals group searching for those killed in the 16-month war. “We understand that Kosovo has to go forward, but not by forgetting crimes. I’m not going to let this reconciliation happen without justice, bodies and compensation.”

Two decades may have passed, but Kosovo remains trapped by its own volatile history, a state that’s Europe’s poorest, only partly recognised internationally and haunted by the ghost of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

The growing concern among envoys, aid agencies and people across the Balkans is that the seeds of conflict are being sown once more, with newly emboldened groups in Bosnia also seeking to redraw borders that have held the fragile peace.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, a former officer in the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, and Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic, who served as Milosevic’s information minister, are aiming to conclude their accord by year’s end. The overall goal is to set their states on course for integration with the EU.

Thaci’s prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, said that Kosovo and Serbia need a deal that includes mutual recognition and should contain an exact pledge to both nations to join the EU at a specific time, possibly as early as in 2022. With the EU fighting its own nationalist demons, it already looks like a long shot.

A produce market in Pristina (left) and the former “Hotel Union” building in central Pristina now housing a United Colors of Bennetton store Image Credit: Bloomberg

The Serbs will “receive forgiveness from us,” Haradinaj, who opposes any border changes, said in an interview in the capital Pristina, or Prishtina in Albanian. “There’s nothing left other than recognising Kosovo and Serbia or continue suffering, but that isn’t good for anybody.”

Sandwiched between Albania and former Yugoslav republics, Serbs consider Kosovo the heartland of their Orthodox faith and the birthplace of their nation.

Tension with Kosovo’s majority Albanians simmered for all of the 20th century and culminated in the bloody 1998-99 war that left 13,535 dead. Fighting was put to an end by Nato, which drove Serb forces out of Kosovo at the end of June 1999. About 3,600 soldiers have remained to keep the peace. Both Serbs and Kosovans have been accused of war crimes.

Kosovo declared unilateral independence from Serbia in 2008 and was recognised by about a half of United Nations members, including the US and most of the EU. Serbia, backed by China and Russia, refuses to recognise it.

Kumnova’s sister-in-law, Ferdonije Qerkezi, has kept much of her house unchanged for 20 years, trying to hang on to memories of her four dead sons and husband.

Her youngest, 14-year-old Edmond, wore navy Adidas sweatpants when he was killed by Serbs. She’s put those tattered pants, underwear and socks” — the only things found on his buried body” — on display in her unheated and lifeless living room in Gjakova, western Kosovo.

“Look at this house, it’s so ugly,” said Qerkezi, 65, surrounded by her boys’ wedding suits, toys and shoes that have been left untouched and covered by a thin plastic sheet. “So big and empty.”

For her and Kumnova, ethnic Albanians, the idea of closing a deal with the Serbs is appalling even though they co-existed in Gjakova for decades before the war. Locals say not a single Serb lives there now. Attempts by Serbs to visit are often foiled by protesters, including Kumnova, and young kids who have hurled eggs, ice or rocks at their buses.

“While we are here, they are not going to come,” said Kumnova. “Sometimes they say, what did we do? We show them the photos.”

As talks between the leaders accelerated last year, Thaci said a deal could include the contentious land-and-people swap. Of Kosovo’s 1.9 million people, 92 per cent are ethnic Albanians, according to the CIA Factbook. It notes that a true estimate is difficult because Serbs who live mainly in the north boycotted the 2011 census.

Indeed, there’s much that remains unclear and potentially explosive for the region. Negotiations have since stalled after Serbia prevented Kosovo from joining police network Interpol. In retaliation, Kosovo introduced trade tariffs on all Serbian products. Kosovo’s premier is now under international pressure to remove the tariffs, but is refusing.

Vucic, the Serbian president, said in February that getting any accord over the line won’t be easy, but the two sides aren’t as far apart as they look. “We both know what we want,” he said in an interview at a global security conference in Munich.

But Kosovo Prime Minister Haradinaj, a former leader of the KLA who was twice acquitted on all charges of war crimes, warned that a land swap would turn Kosovo into the mono-ethnic state once sought by Milosevic.

“That’s a very dangerous thing,” he said. “Nobody would like to see other generations going through the same mistakes that we did. Milosevic was terrible, he made really big tragedies around the region. I hope all of us have learnt the lesson.”

Gjakova and the surrounding area saw the biggest number of casualties during the war. For Vincenzo Grasso, chief of the public affairs office at Nato’s KFOR peacekeeping force, the ability of Gjakova’s citizens to again accept Serbs will be a key test of the country’s readiness for reconciliation.

Currently, the security situation in Kosovo is calm and the tension exists only at the political level, he said. “They can’t use weapons so they like to use inflammatory rhetoric,” he said. “Unfortunately there are leaders, sometimes media that are spreading threats that are not existing.”

Even if the two presidents reach a deal, its implementation is up in the air because parliaments in both Pristina and Belgrade would have to ratify it. There’s also talk about holding referendums. Popular backing looks unlikely.

Qerkezi’s home, much of it left untouched and covered in plastic for the last 20 years. Image Credit: Bloomberg

In the meantime, Kosovo is ever more vulnerable to a tug-of-war for influence between western powers and Russia while its economy looks increasingly dire.

The jobless rate sits at 30 per cent, there’s been a huge brain drain and growth is dependent on remittances, consumption and real-estate investments from the diaspora. Gross domestic product is seen expanding at 4 per cent this year, but central bank Governor Fehmi Mehmeti said the rate needs to be twice that to address the challenges.

For sure, an agreement to get Kosovo out of its current isolation and lead to wider recognition as a country “would remove a big barrier for investment and trade,” said Ruud Vermeulen, the resident representative of the International Monetary Fund in Kosovo. “It may unlock a significant increase in trade, a significant increase in investment and that’s badly needed.”

There are some glimmers of hope. Pristina is experiencing a real-estate boom as apartment buildings spring up on the outskirts and dental, legal and plastic surgery outlets take up a large chunk of downtown retail space.

In Krusha e Madhe, a 30 minute drive east of Gjakova, Fahrie Hoti set up a business shortly after her husband and 245 other men in the village were killed during the war, leaving her with two children under three years of age. She wanted to sell vegetables at the market, but wasn’t allowed to because local customs say it would be shameful for a widow.

“So I started canning vegetables,” said Hoti, 49. She now employs 50 mainly other war-time widows and exports her pureed and pickled peppers. “The prejudice from people where we live was a problem. A widow should not go to work, drive a car. She should be isolated, closed to raise the kids and be the baggage of others.”

She hopes that politicians will start working for Kosovo and the nation will become a flourishing member of the EU with visa-free travel and an end to corruption and organised crime.

“I have to wait six months for a visa to see the places where my goods are sold,” she said. But if the politicians continue as they are working now, Kosovo would see another exodus. Were that to happen, she said, “it would be like a second war for us.”