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

A Premature Return

Without jobs, houses and security, Kosovo’s non-Albanians say they cannot return home.
By Dia Krasniqi

Hamid Zymberi, an Ashkali man in his fifties returned this week to his newly built home in Vushtrri /Vucitrn , a small town 20 kilometres north of Pristina .

“There are some adaptation issues, such as lack of water supply and power,” said Hamid, but his main concern is security.

“We feel safe for the moment, but there is always an element of fear of things that could happen.”

Zymberi's house was burned in the March riots, the two-day rampage when mobs of ethnic Albanians targeted Serbs and other minorities including the Ashkali, Roma and Egyptians.

Hundreds of homes were burned, leaving up to 4,000 people displaced and 19 people dead.

Out of 69 Ashkali families that were made homeless in Vushtrri during the riots, only 10 have been persuaded to go back to homes that have so far been rebuilt by the Kosovo government.

Qazim Demaçi, who took refuge at the Vicianum Hotel in Vushtrri after the March riots said, “ We don’t think it is safe enough to return.”

That was more than a year ago, but poor security and a lack of jobs and homes to return to mean Kosovo’s minority communities remain in limbo.

Many live in displacement camps such as Zitkovac and Cesmin Lug in the northern town of Mitrovica, and Plemetina near Pristina, where conditions are particularly bad.

In his first address to the Kosovo Assembly as prime minister, on March 24, Bajram Kosumi confirmed that he would stand by his promise on the closure of Plemetina by June.

“I had the opportunity to see close-up how some of these people lived in temporary settlement in Plemetina camp,” said Kosumi in his address. “I must admit that the existence of that camp is the worst image of Kosovo.”

To ensure the returnees have somewhere to go, each municipality is supposed to make sure that more homes will be rebuilt to house them. But the process has been anything but smooth.

Haxhi Zylfi Merxha, leader of United Party of Kosovo Roma, PreBK, and a parliamentary deputy, said certain standards have to be met before asking Roma to return.

“I am not pleased at all with the way the return process is going,” said Merxha. “Kosovo has to secure some basic conditions, to facilitate the return of Roma, such as rebuilding their houses and providing jobs and education.”

According to the 1991 census, there used to be about 150,000 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Kosovo. Merxha said only 50,000 are left today. About 20,000 are believed to be in neighbouring countries like Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, while the rest have left for Western Europe.

Hazir, along with thousands of other Roma, went to Germany after the violence which followed the end of the NATO bombing in June 1999.

Many of them have been forcibly returned to an uncertain fate. Hazir and his family of four now live in a shed on the outskirts of Gjakova.

“The German authorities didn’t want to know whether we had a home or a job to come back to, and now we are back we have neither,” said Hazir.

Leaders of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian political parties have met with German member of parliament Christoph Strasser, a member of the country’s human rights commission, in Pristina to discuss their concerns about the forced repatriations.

Sabit Rrahmani, a representative of Ashkali community, said the three tried to convince the German official that conditions are not right in Kosovo for ethnic minorities to return from places such as Germany.

“The argument that German troops are here to make Kosovo secure is not enough for Germany to return RAE [Roma, Ashkali, Egyptian] refugees,” said Rrahmani. “If these people have no homes and jobs to return to, how could it be safe for them to return?”

Unemployment is a particularly serious problem for the Roma and other non-Albanian minorities.

Merxha said he rarely sees Romas employed in public bodies like the Kosovo Police Service, KPS, or the Kosovo Assembly.

According to a February United Nations report, of the 3,024 active Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC) members, only two are Roma, 33 Ashkali and 8 Egyptian, while in the KPS, out of 6,254 active members, only 379 are from non-Serb minorities.

Qerim Gara, a representative of Ashkali community in Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosove, said that in a community of 4,000, only 22 Ashkali and Roma are employed by local institutions.

Dia Krasniqi and Sanela Memet are taking part in the IWPR Primary Level Course, which is supported by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.