Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kosovo Serbs Return in Doubt

They have international protection, but is there a future for the Serbs trickling back into northwestern Kosovo?
By Agim Fetahu

Sitting behind his desk in a partly burnt out elementary school, Kosovo Serb Gojko Djuric flicks his cigarette ash into an empty beer can and talks proudly of how he helped former villagers return to their homes in the northwest of the province.


Djuric, 42, a former postman, returned to the village of Osojane on August 13 along with 82 other Serbs. They were dismayed by what they found. "We were tired, a little scared but very excited," said one elderly returnee. "We waited until dawn to see our homes and yards ... and then all we saw was the destruction."


Djuric himself was not surprised by the scene. The UN High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, had organised visits for a number of the 119 Serb families who had lived there before the war, including the Djurics.


However, with all his talk of reconstruction and living in harmony with Albanians there is an undercurrent of fear, of mistrust. Still apprehensive about the situation, the Djurics have left their children in Mitrovica with relatives, evidently unconvinced that the Spanish KFOR troops guarding the village will be enough to protect them.


Djuric remembers how they fled in panic and confusion back in June 1999, in a convoy of cars, trucks and tractors bound for Serbia. "It was very difficult leaving. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. We suffered a lot," he said.


"This is my home, my property. We have no other choice but to live here ... with Albanians," Djuric went on, with a mixture of determination and resignation.


The US government has been pushing for the return of the refugees since early 2000 and Osojane was conceived as a pilot project. It was hoped the success of this mission would encourage other Serbs to follow suit. But US plans were stymied by both the Albanians and internationals on the ground in Kosovo.


"It's very difficult to be supportive of returnees at this time," said UNHCR envoy Dennis McNamara in spring last year.


The question is whether time has healed any of the wounds caused by the years of repression and conflict in the province. "So far," said Simon Haselock, UNMIK spokesman, "Kosovars seem to have been getting on with some 80 per cent or so of Serbs returning to the area. What is important is the way that the local municipal authorities have responded and it seems they have responded well."


Fatmir Limaj, a spokesman for the PDK, Democratic Party of Kosovo, and a former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, commander backed this up. "We support the return of all Kosovo citizens regardless of their ethnicity. All Kosovo citizens have suffered from the previous Yugoslav regime."


But, two miles down the road from Osojane, in the Albanian majority populated village of Djurakovac, the owner of the local café Jeton Kabashi gives further reason why the returning Serbs might think twice about coming back. "They have committed crimes, they have killed and burned, they don't belong here. This is provocation."


The difficulty seems to lie not only with fears over Albanians seeking revenge but also economic rivalries. "The economy is in ruins," said Limaj. " And the majority of the Serbs before the war worked either for the government or in state companies that no longer exist."


As such, Limaj believes that the future looks bleak for the Serb community and that the international effort to return them is a case of "political correctness in a post-war region".


One international in the province told IWPR that it was right to view the subject with scepticism. "Sometimes internationals put more emphasis on the political process than human lives," he said. "A case in point is the return of the Serbs in Osojane."


Many Serbs think the repatriation effort is only half-hearted. Talking about the Osojane returnees Milan Ivanovic, member of the Serb National Council based in Mitrovica, believes that the project is a publicity stunt for UNMIK and that the policy is not a serious one. He suspects it would take "a hundred years" to return all the refugees at this rate.


While Djuric remains proud about the numbers of returnees, it remains to be seen just how many remain there. Yes, a few are helping rebuild each others' houses but others are far more rueful.


The villagers say UNHCR promised to pay them in return for rebuilding their homes. They say that they have received free food and materials but no money. For Srdjan Repanovic, 21, this was the last straw as far as a possible return was concerned.


"I'm going back to Serbia. I don't like it here. I don't get paid and it's awful," he said.


Agim Fetahu is IWPR Special Projects Editor and Senior Trainer for Kosovo and Macedonia.

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