Bringing Back the Bodies: The Balkan Emigrants Repatriated in Death

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...

Continue reading on: