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

Kosovo Serbs Wait for Rebuilt Homes

Several months after Albanian extremists torched their homes, many displaced Serbs have yet to see any sign of the promised reconstruction.
By Tanja Vujisic

Stana Nikolic, aged 73, is searching for any household item she can find in the yard of the burned-down house where she lived until March 17 this year.


On that day, ethnic Albanian extremists set fire to all the Serbian houses in the village of Svinjare, four kilometers south of the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica.


Nikolic’s home has still not been rebuilt and she does not know when her turn will come. Of the 134 houses torched in the village, only 30 are undergoing renovation – and hers is not among them.


The lucky few were selected by the Committee for Reconstruction, set up by the Kosovo government and headed by culture and sports minister Bexhet Brajshori. The work plan they have drawn up involves repairing the least-damaged houses first and leaving homes that were completely destroyed till last.


It is becoming increasingly clear that the government’s plan to restore the torched houses will not be fulfilled by the September deadline, owing mainly to errors in assessing the funds needed.


Delays in the reconstruction program in Svinjare will only add to the wider problem of returning expelled Serbs to their homes throughout Kosovo.


Most displaced Serbs do not want to return individually to the places they left in March, saying they will return only as a group, when all their homes are rebuilt.


The latest wave of violence in Kosovo, according to data from the United Nations mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, resulted in the complete or partial destruction of around 843 homes and 30 churches, leaving some 4,000 Serbs, Roma and other non-Albanians homeless.


The Kosovo government earmarked five million euro for the rebuilding of the homes in April but later raised the figure to almost 12 million euro.


There are fears now that even that higher figure will not be sufficient, and the government and individual municipalities are trying to secure more money for the reconstruction.


Mimoza Kusari, spokesperson for the Kosovo government, told IWPR that the government is considering holding a donor’s conference because of the large amount of money that will be needed. She said some municipalities had already started collecting additional funds on their own, by imposing extra taxes on car registration.


On a visit to Kosovo on June 7, the European Union’s high representative for foreign policy, Javier Solana, said the EU might impose penalties if the reconstruction was not finished by September.


“The speed at which the reconstruction of things is going is not correct,” he said in Pristina. “The winter is pretty close, and if by that time the houses are not repaired, they will not be repaired ever – and that is something we cannot tolerate.”


But on June 22, Kosovo’s prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, set a later date, telling Radio Free Europe he expected the work to finished by the end of October or early November.


Peggy Hicks, director of the returns department for UNMIK, said she doubted the work would be completed by the EU’s earlier deadline, “I don’t think it will be completed by September 1, but people can live in the yards of their houses, in mobile containers and tents, until their homes are finished.”


She added, “It is very important to do as much as possible by then to win the trust of the people whose houses we are repairing.”.


Serbs in Obilic, a small town from which they were expelled in March, have received mobile container homes as a donation from the Norwegian KFOR contingent. In Obilic, 108 of the 415 Serbs who lived there until March have returned to live in the containers.


Containers have also been brought to Svinjare as a gift from Russia, though some were promptly stolen. Five disappeared two weeks ago after they were delivered, and although KFOR and the UN police said they had noted the theft, they told IWPR that they were not responsible for guarding such items.


Quite apart from the torched homes, an assessment of the damage done to Serbian churches and monasteries destroyed or damaged in the March violence has yet to be completed. A UNESCO commission visited Kosovo in April, but has not yet conducted an audit of the damage.


On his visit to Kosovo, Solana said the reconstruction of religious monuments was another obligation of the government of Kosovo.


The only thing Stana Nikolic wants to know is when her home will be completed – not who will do the job.


She wants to return to Svinjare because since March she has been living in the basement of the high school in Mitrovica along with 59 other Serbs, mainly from Obilic, all of whom are waiting for their houses to be repaired so they can finally go home.


Tanja Vujisic is a correspondent for the BBC Serbian Service in Kosovo, who is participating in IWPR’s Primary Journalism Course supported by the OSCE.