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Albanians Unwilling to Forgive Returing Serbs

Plans to return Serb refugees to Kosovo have alarmed their former Albanian neighbours
By Albana Kasapi

On a beautiful Sunday morning, eight Spanish peacekeepers roasting in the sun are the only sign of life amidst the ruins of the Serb village of Osojane, in western Kosovo. They are guarding the remains of an Orthodox church, destroyed except for its copper cross which still rises into the sky. Osojane has been razed.


"We found the village like this when we arrived, four months ago. The Albanians who destroyed it still come back to take bricks from the collapsed buildings," said Sergeant Ovejero. "Albanians and Serbs hate each other, but we have heard that Serbs will be returning."


The Spanish soldiers are part of a peacekeeping mission, but there was no peace left to keep when they arrived here. Serb villagers had left soon after NATO forces entered Kosovo and revenge attacks started immediately. Houses were burned and looted and dynamite was used to blow up the church. The village has been deserted ever since the Spanish arrived.


"Unlike Bosnia, where I was stationed twice, there is no conflict here, there are not nearly so many problems and it is calm," said Sergaent Ovejero, barely concealing his disappointment at having spent four months guarding a destroyed church in a dead village - a very boring mission. His seven-man unit will shortly return to Spain to be replaced by a new set of peacekeepers - their mission will be anything but boring, as they will have to protect returning Serbs from the surrounding Albanians.


Osojane has been chosen as the showcase for the return of some of the scores of thousands who fled Kosovo last year. The project is being promoted by the Americans who have donated $5 million for the reconstruction of the Osojane, which will come under protection of the Spanish K-For soldiers.


News that Serbs may soon return to this poor region of western Kosovo has caught Albanians in the neighbouring village of Krlice by surprise. Until the Serbs left almost a year ago, this was one of Kosovo's few mixed villages. Today, memories of bloody episodes and a fear they could be repeated, hang in the air.


US funds will also be used to build a road giving the Serbs safe access to their village. One asphalt road already runs from Osojane to Krlice. "The only good thing we ever got from the Serbs was that road which Slobo [Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic] built for them, but last year it became part of our nightmare," said Metaj, a Krlice villager.


"They would come by that road, including local people from Osojane wearing uniforms. Before I fled my home last year I saw them leaving for Izbica. There are people who saw them participating in the massacre there. Do you think they will overlook that if those criminals come back? Do foreigners here understand this?" he asked.


A few weeks ago, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, endorsed the idea of an organised return of Serbs to Kosovo, apparently in response to ongoing pressure from both moderate and extreme Kosovo Serb leaders. A joint committee for the safe return of the Serbs was established at the beginning of May, with the participation of moderate Serb leader Bishop Artemije, the head of UNMIK Bernard Kouchner, the Commander of K-For General Juan Ortuno and other senior officials. All are wary of the dangers of an improperly planned return.


"We are all in favour of Serbs returning," Kouchner said announcing the creation of the committee. "We need them back, we want them back, but please not as a source of a new problem."


Experts on refugee return also have their doubts about the plan for Osojane. "We don't want people returning to armed enclaves", warns UNHCR special envoy Dennis McNamara. He is an outspoken critic of similar projects in the troubled town of Mitrovica, which has become the scene of on and off violent clashes. McNamara thinks the time may be ripe to bring back the Roma population, but not the Serbs. "If you are going to promote return, you must talk to the host communities and their leadership first," he says.


In Krlice, the host community does not seem in the mood to welcome back their former neighbours. "There will be no peace in this valley if Serbs come back. The only good Serbs in this area were dead ones. Would they really dare to return? Clinton should take them to the US instead of bringing them here," said Erim Metaj, rolling a cheap cigarette in front of his wrecked house.


As a kind of trial run, UNIMIK will soon begin the return of some 30,000 Roma, Ashkalija and Egyptians, with the consent of Albanian political leaders.


But it remains to be seen how returning Serbs will fare in Osojane. "I don't want K-For knocking on my door if some Serb in Osojane gets killed," says Qerim shaking his head. "Izbica is close by and wounds are still open there. I can ignore them, but go and ask people there if they will be able to do the same."


Albana Kasapi is an Albanian journalist working in Kosovo.


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