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Kosovo: Come Back, Serbs

Despite a groundbreaking appeal from Albanian politicians, there are still many obstacles to refugees’ return.
By Arta Avdiu

In a significant step forward, all Albanian political leaders in Kosovo have urged displaced Serbs to return to their homes in the province. The move has been welcomed by the outgoing head of the United Nations administration, Michael Steiner.


The July 1 statement was signed by key players including president Ibrahim Rugova, prime minister Bajram Rexhepi, Democratic Party of Kosova leader Hashim Thaci, and Alliance for the Future of Kosova chief Ramush Haradinaj.


“It is time for you to come home,” the statement said, addressing Serbs and others now living in Serbia and Montenegro or Macedonia.


“We do not ‘invite’ you to come back to your home, because Kosovo is your home and you have the right to live here in peace.”


“It is truly time to put the past behind us and move on.”


In his final briefing as head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, Steiner expressed pleasure at the statement and said progress towards a multi-ethnic society was taking place, although that required “a lot more work”.


The international community would like to see all of Kosovo’s refugees and internally displaced persons going back to their old homes. As Steiner said, “The slowness of returns and integration remains our most serious shortcoming.”


The Albanian leaders’ appeal drew mixed reactions from Serbs. The Serbian government agency responsible for liaison with the province welcomed it as “a big step forwards”, although other Serbs pounced on it as evidence that the Albanians had no intention of keeping their promise, but were merely mouthing such rhetoric to impress the western powers.


Serbs fear the prospect that Kosovo could move to formal independence, if the international community ever allows this.


Instead, some refugees would like the Serbia and Montenegro army to pave the way for their return – implying that Serbia would regain a measure of control over the province.


“I’m ready to come back, but only if the Serbian army and police are back. And I know it will happen,” says 60-year-old Verica from the town of Obilic in central Kosovo.


“I’ll go back when my state, Serbia, guarantees my security,” said Slavko, a Serb from Vucitrn currently sharing a one-room flat with five family members in the enclave of northern Mitrovica.


Although Slavko and his wife were beaten up after the war, he says he does not hate his former Albanian neighbours and will go back to live among them – as long as Serbia protects him and gives him a job.


Refugees on all sides – Serbs, Albanians and others – will take some convincing. With their property often in ruins, unemployment high and the economy in stagnation, they often have little material incentive to return.


“I would gladly go back and live with my Albanian neighbours,” said Milunika, a grandmother from the village of Slatina who has been living in a tent in Mitrovica for the past four years.


“My home is in that village, but it is impossible to go back because my family do not want to join me – they have no chance of earning there.”


Zymber Shala, a 29-year-old Albanian from Drenica, does not intend to go back to his old home, and plans to go on working as a labourer in the capital. “My house is destroyed,” he said, “and even if I managed to rebuild it through some humanitarian agency, there is no way I could earn my daily bread there.”


The lingering distrust between the two communities is a major barrier. Many refugees are too afraid to consider living alongside their old neighbours again. Others would go back as long as they could be sure they would not be in danger.


“If we could obtain assurances from our Albanian neighbours that nobody will harm us, we would return immediately”, said a Serb refugee from Bablak. He is currently living in an abandoned Albanian house in Strpce district, where Serbs still predominate.


Some refugees are desperate to get back to their homes, because despite the dangers, life cannot be much worse than it is now.


Goran Pitulic and his family are Serbs from Kosovo who have spent the last four years living in a dilapidated warehouse behind a railroad in Belgrade. “These are inhuman conditions,” he said. “We are asking for security assurances and minimal economic help. ”Were they to return, humanitarian aid hand-outs would just about cover the cost of a new home for the Pitulic family. But they too will likely fall foul of a collapsed economy.


The first wave of refugees to leave Kosovo was, by and large, Albanian. When the war ended in June 1999, the bulk of the expelled 500,000 Albanians returned to their homes.


After the war, however, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, estimates that a further 200,000 people, including Serbs and other minorities such as Roma, were forced out of their homes. Of these, the UNHCR says roughly 7,000 people – including 4,000 Serbs – have subsequently returned home.


In June Kosovo’s prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi visited Upper Bitinja, a village in the south of the protectorate to which Albanians are being encouraged to return. His trip was intended to signal to all displaced communities that it was now safe to go back home.


“The process of returns will only be successful if it is a reciprocal one,” he said.


Miftar Bakiu, 67, is the eldest of a group of Albanians who have made their first journey back to homes in Bitinja which they fled in 1998.


As he surveyed the burnt-out ruins of his house, its walls daubed with Serb nationalist graffiti, he said, “After five years I am returning to the place where my grandparents lived.”


Despite the bitter legacy of the conflict, Bakiu agrees that it is time for both communities to rebuild their lives.


“The Serbs, too, must return to places from which they were forcibly expelled after the war,” he said.


Arta Avdiu is a RTK journalist and Tanja Marija Vujisic is a freelance journalist based in North Mitrovica.


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