Bringing Back the Bodies: The Balkan Immigrants Repatriated in Death

Emigration has long afflicted the countries of the Balkans. But many of those who leave know they will return in death.
By Jeton Musliu

Once a month, Atdhe Gashi makes the short trip east from his home in the Kosovo capital, Pristina/Prishtine, to the hilltop village of Mramor where he was born 53 years ago. 

Each time, he visits the grave of his father, who died last year in Vienna aged 74.

Gashi’s father, Skender, was a professor and, for more than two decades, head of the Albanian language department at the University of Vienna. But despite settling down in Austria, Skender always knew he would be laid to rest in Mramor at the end of a narrow road that snakes into the hills.

“He wrote in his will that he wanted to be buried here,” said Gashi, a short, bespectacled Kosovar-Austrian dual national and keen beekeeper. “And one day I will be buried in the same place, close to my relatives.”

Skender Gashi, a Kosovo Albanian, was one of 3,765 deceased Kosovars brought back from around the world for burial in Kosovo between 2017 and 2019, according to data from the country’s interior ministry. 

With hundreds of thousands of Kosovars living abroad, mainly in Western Europe, the repatriation of the dead has become a multi-million-euro industry, replicated to varying degrees across the Balkans, where every year tens of thousands of people quit the countries that emerged from the ashes of federal Yugoslavia.

While they are drawn to the more affluent states of Western Europe by the possibility of better pay and higher living standards, many already know that, in death, they will return.

‘Buried in their homeland’

📷 The Monchengladbach musk in Dusseldorf where Imam Kadriolli serves. Photo: Imam Kadriolli

The Balkans has a long history of emigration, most recently in the form of hundreds of thousands of ‘gastarbeiters’ leaving socialist Yugoslavia from the 1960s onwards before the bloody collapse of their federal state triggered a wave of refugees. Peace has not halted the trend; the region is haemorrhaging young people fed up with poverty, corruption and political polarisation.

In 2013, Astrit Salihu left his native Kosovo, a former province of Serbia that declared independence in 2008, for the western Germany city of Dusseldorf, where he opened a funeral company and called it Atdhe, like Gashi, meaning ‘homeland’.

Salihu, 34, deals with roughly 100 requests per year for bodies to be returned from Western Europe to the Balkans, not only Kosovo. 

“We deal with all the documentation, from the hospital to the airport,” Salihu told BIRN. “The majority of our compatriots want to be buried in their homeland,” he said.

Salihu said the cost to a family runs from anywhere between 2,500 and 5,000 euros, depending on the country where the person died, how fast the family wants the body back and any complicating factors.

“Two years ago, an elderly Montenegrin died, leaving word that he should not be transported by plane but only by car,” said Salihu. His company charged 4,500 euros. “It was a little weird for me,” he said.

But, he said, “The company is ready to do whatever the family needs, including calling the priest or imam.”

Besnik Kadriolli, a 38-year-old Kosovar imam in Monchengladbach near Germany’s western border with the Netherlands, told BIRN: “Interest is high among Albanians of Kosovo and others in the Balkans to transport their beloved dead family members to their countries of origin.”

And it is not just first-generation immigrants but their descendants too. Kadriolli recalled one case in 2019 when a Kosovo Albanian woman in Germany had an abortion and the family buried the dead foetus in Kosovo. People BIRN spoke to they knew of cases of second and third-generation immigrants also being buried in the Balkans.

Kosovar sociologist Leutrim Sahiti said Balkan diaspora communities, in particular Albanian, were notable for the “strong ties” they maintain with their homeland, “despite the physical distance.”

“Proof of the strong connection that our diaspora has with the country of origin and its non-assimilation is the return of the dead from the diaspora to their country,” he told BIRN.

Albanians, he said, have a strong “spiritual connection with the homeland, with their relatives in the homeland” and great importance is placed in the holding of religious ceremonies together. For many, the cycle of life is only complete when the deceased “rests in the place of birth,” he said.

Multi-million-euro industry

It is a phenomenon not limited only to Albanians like Gashi, the ethnic majority in Kosovo. 

According to BIRN’s findings, deceased Kosovars of all ethnicities have been repatriated from countries as far flung as Thailand, Gambia, Swaziland and South Africa, regardless of the expense.

In the village of Lubinje/Ljubinje in southern Kosovo, 50-year-old villager Mercan Osmani pointed to the graves of those who died abroad but were brought back for burial.

Emigration has more than halved the ethnic Bosnian population of the village, he said, “but in the end everyone wants to be buried in the village,” a desire he attributed to “nostalgia”.

“Last Sunday, a woman was buried who was brought back from Switzerland,” he said. “It took six days for her body to reach Kosovo due to the coronavirus.”

Indeed, most of the villagers have left for Switzerland, where Zurich’s frequent flights to and from Kosovo have made the city a hub for the repatriation to the Balkans of deceased immigrants from across Western Europe.

“They bring not only the elderly but also the young,” said another villager, 55-year-old Refik Kasi. “As far as I know,” he said, “in the last 50 years only three people [from Lubinje/Ljubinje] were buried actually where they lived.”

Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, told BIRN it does not collect data on the number of dead bodies transported out of the bloc for burial elsewhere. Nor does Kosovo, with a population of roughly 1.8 million, know exactly how many of its citizens have emigrated.

Germany alone, however, counts among its 83 million people some 463,000 people of Kosovar background, 415,000 of Bosnian heritage and 316,000 Serbian, according to MEDIENDIENST INTEGRATION, an information service for journalists specialising in topics concerning migration and integration.

In the past three years, 925 deceased Kosovars were transported from Germany for burial in Kosovo, according to figures from Kosovo’s interior ministry.

Germany’s federal statistics office was unable to confirm how many dead bodies are transported out of Germany each year, but reports suggest it is in the tens of thousands to all parts of the world including the Balkans.

If the average price to send a body to Kosovo is 3,000 euros, then Kosovars have spent more than 12 million euros over the past three years on bringing back their dead, leading to a growth in funeral homes focused almost exclusively on transporting corpses across borders.

Kosovo had fewer than 10 registered funeral companies in 2012. It now has 71.

Cost no obstacle

📷 The village of Mramor near Prishtina, where Skender Gashi was born. Photo: Jeton Musliu

Neighbouring Montenegro also has a large diaspora. The foreign ministry said it estimated that as many Montenegrins lived abroad as lived in Montenegro itself – some 630,000 – but there is no data on how many are brought back for burial each year.

Likewise, Albania estimates that some 1.6 million Albanians live abroad, while the country’s population is some 2.8 million, but authorities there also said they had no data on how many deceased Albanians were repatriated.

North Macedonia’s foreign ministry, however, told BIRN that documents were issued in 522 cases last year for the transfer back of Macedonians who died abroad, 684 in 2018 and 599 in 2017.

BIRN requested the same information from Serbia’s foreign ministry but had not received any data by the time of publication.

Lockdowns imposed across the continent to combat the spread of COVID-19 may have slowed the business of bringing back bodies for burial in the Balkans, but the ensuing economic depression may well fuel greater emigration from the region.  

In Mramor, Gashi said that for many, when the time comes, the cost will not stand in the way of them being brought back to the Balkans for burial.

He cited a friend whose 20-year-old nephew was killed in Sweden, where he was born and raised. “The family paid 18,000 euros in plane tickets to all come to Kosovo for the burial,” he said.

Jeton Musliu is a journalist currently working as a news editor at the public broadcaster, Radio Television of Kosovo, RTK. He previously worked as an editor at the daily Tribuna, as a journalist for BIRN in Kosovo and for the daily newspaper, Express. Throughout his career, he collaborated with various international media and won several national and international awards in investigative journalism.     

This article has been produced as part of the Resonant Voices Initiative in the EU, funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund – Police.

The content of this story represents the views of the author and is the sole responsibility of BIRN. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.