Kosovo: Housing Dispute Breakthrough

The UN in Kosovo is planning to resolve thousands of housing disputes between Serbs and Albanians in the coming year.

Kosovo: Housing Dispute Breakthrough

The UN in Kosovo is planning to resolve thousands of housing disputes between Serbs and Albanians in the coming year.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

UN agencies has made significant progress in resolving long-running disputes over property ownership ater a three-year investigation into who lived where before the Kosovo war.

The operation involves a huge exchange of dwellings between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serb minority.

In one recent example, an Albanian family was evicted from a flat in central Pristina, which is owned by Serbs. The former fled there when their home in a nearby village was burned down by Serbian forces during the 1998-1999 conflict.

The Albanians have since rebuilt their house, but continue to live in the Pristina apartment. Now they have been told to get out by the Housing and Property Directorate, HPD, a body set up by the UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK.

In the past two months, the HPD has dealt with 2000 requests for the restoration of property, and promises that the remaining 23,000 cases will be settled this year.

UNMIK set up the HPD and the Property Claims Commission, HPCC, in 1999. Until November 2002, they worked at collecting data and studying rival claims, a task enormously hampered by the confusion surrounding property issues. The HPD and HPCC have exclusive jurisdiction over the matter and their decisions are not subject to appeal.

Many of the claims relate to the 1999 conflict, when it's estimated that about 100,000 housing units, almost half the housing stock, were destroyed. Homeless Albanians flocked to urban areas, mostly moving into the homes of Serbs who'd fled to escape revenge attacks. The migration doubled the population of cities like Pristina.

The remaining Serbs stayed in enclaves within Kosovo, the biggest one being northern Mitrovica. Most Serbs living in this part of the city moved into Albanian-owned property.

A significant number of claims concern Albanians who lost property after Belgrade suspended the province's autonomy in the late Eighties. The move provoked a general strike, which led to the dismissal of thousands of Albanian workers. In addition to losing their jobs, some 1,600 of the latter lost their company flats.

At the same time, around 1,000 Albanian employees were barred from acquiring newly built apartments, even though they possessed documentation proving that they'd been allocated to them by their companies. Instead, these apartments were often given to Serbs. Then, in the 1990s many were privatised and frequently changed hands between members of the two communities.

"All these cases are now being considered," Pristina lawyer Avni Gjakova told IWPR. "However, there are cases when the disputed flats were sold to other buyers and so we sometimes have three owners claiming the same property."

More problems were caused by further discriminatory laws introduced in 1991, which prevented Serbs from selling property to Albanians as a means of stemming the emigration of the former. The legislation, however, failed to stop such transactions.

Despite the difficulties, the processing of property claims is progressing steadily. The HPD now has offices throughout Kosovo as well as Serbia and Montenegro. It has also been bolstered by a 5.5 million-euro donation from the EU, doubling its current budget, and the assistance of four international property experts.

Progress on the rehousing issue is important because Kosovars are losing patience with the process - a frustration that local ombudsman Marek Novicki conveyed in a letter to UN administrator Michael Steiner in November.

HPD director Martin Drake told IWPR that the commission had until recently been pre-occupied collecting all the submissions and preparing the ground for action. "Our teams visited sites, checked available documents and in the past two months settled 2,000 cases," he said.

Diturie Hodza, HPD deputy spokesperson, said the commission is finding temporary accommodation for families forced to leave illegally occupied property while their old homes are rebuilt.

Meanwhile, the sale of the property between Serbs and Albanians is continuing but under different, more transparent conditions.

In December, Misa Stankovic, a Serb from Pristina, now living in Serbia proper, came with his lawyer to the Merdare checkpoint in northern Kosovo to exchange contracts with an Albanian who had bought his two-bedroom flat for 50,000 euro. The deal will go through once the HPD checks the papers and gives the green light.

Nehat Islami is the IWPR representative in Pristina.

Serbia, Kosovo
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