For Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, Slobodan Milosevic came to personify the brutality and destruction that befell them in the 1990’s, during his campaign to rid the province of separatists.
But while few mourn for him, many regret his death, feeling the former Yugoslav president escaped justice by dying before a verdict could be reached in his war crimes trial at the UN tribunal in The Hague.
“He has drained the blood out of my family,” wept Ferdone Qerkezi, 52, who lost her husband and all four sons – the youngest aged 14, the eldest 23 - during the 1998-99 crackdown by Serb forces in Kosovo. “He could never have suffered the way I do.”
On March 27, 1999, days after Nato started its aerial bombardment of Milosevic’s forces in an attempt to stop the crackdown, Qerkezi, her husband and sons, as well as several other relatives and friends, huddled in the basement of a two storey house when Serb policemen came.
They took all the males away, including her youngest son, Edmond. That was the last time she saw them alive, Qerkezi said, weeping and looking around the room adorned with the framed pictures of her loved ones.
Her house in the western town of Djakovica is now a shrine to those who do not live there any more. She keeps golden rings on her fingers – the weddings rings from two of her sons’ wives, who moved away after they realised their husbands would never come back.
With her life in ruins, Qerkezi switches from sorrow to fits of rage at the thought of Milosevic dying peacefully, without being punished.
“He should have been dragged through streets of towns and thrown into a bottomless pit so no one could ever find him,” she said, clutching a picture of her sons and husband. “For what he has done to us, there is no punishment on earth that befits him.”
“No matter his death, he should be sentenced,” Qerkezi said. “His family should not be able to see him even dead in the next 500 years.”
Kasim Qerkezi, her brother-in-law whose 18-year-old son Vegim was also taken by Serb police on the same day, was equally bitter about Milosevic’s death.
“He was like a snake that always slips away,” he said of Milosevic. “He died without paying back a fraction of what he owed to all of us.”
Vegim Qerkezi’s body was never found, but he is presumed dead.
It was in Kosovo that Milosevic shot to prominence, whipping up Serbs’ nationalist fervour with a 1989 speech in Kosovo Polje, near Pristina, where Ottoman forces defeated a Cristian army led by Serbian Prince Lazar in 1389.
And it was for alleged crimes committed during his crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebels in Kosovo that he was first indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal in 1999.
The tribunal eventually charged the former president with 66 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. He was extradited to the UN-court in June 2001 and had been on trial since February 2002.
In Kosovo, the prosecution accused him of direct responsibility for crimes including the deportation of 800,000 Kosovo Albanians and the murders of about 600 individually identified ethnic Albanians.
Among those were Qerkezi’s husband and four sons.
For more than six years, she searched for them in vain. Then in August 2005, officials told her they had found Edmond’s bones, as well as those of her oldest son, Artan, in a mass grave near the southern town of Prizren.
Today the two are buried in a hillside graveyard overlooking the town of Djakovica, along with another 86 of the town’s residents killed during the war. Her husband Hilmi, and two other sons – Armend, 22, and Ardian, 18 – were never found. They are believed dead.