Rebuilding Gjakove

With the help of the international community, the Albanians of Gjakove (Djakovica) have begun rebuilding their devastated town.

Rebuilding Gjakove

With the help of the international community, the Albanians of Gjakove (Djakovica) have begun rebuilding their devastated town.

"When I saw what had happened, I thought it would have been better if I had been killed. My property, my tradition, my whole way of life, everything was there," an old tailor from Gjakove recalls the destruction of the ancient town just over a year ago.

As the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia got under way, Serb forces devastated Gjakove, killing scores of people and burning hundreds of shops and houses, mosques, Catholic churches and historical sites. Gjakove fell victim to so many Serb atrocities that it was dubbed "the heart of darkness".

Yugoslav army units reportedly shelled the streets while Serbian paramilitatry police rampaged through one neighbourhood after another, expelling families and executing men on the spot. Around 1,500 people are unaccounted for - many are thought to be languishing in Serb prisons.

Local Albanians believe that the Serb mayor of the town led the attack their community. At the height of the Serb assault, he cynically apologised for the carnage which, he claimed, was the result of NATO bombs.

Once one of the most picturesque towns in Kosovo, it has become one of the most war-ravaged. But driven by the need to earn a living, many local people have begun to rebuild their shops and businesses, ahead of international reconstruction efforts. "I knew that no one in the world would help me, even though I have to support a family of seven," said an elderly Albanian man selling traditional Albanian caps. Nearby, others have set up a shop on the rubble of the damaged bazaar.

Gjakove is slowly regaining something of its old appeal. People have collected cobble stones from the surrounding hills and re-laid some of the old streets. The sound of building work reverberates around the town. But the extensive war damage has devastated the local economy. Residents eagerly await the international community's efforts to regenerate the town.

"We welcome any assistance from the world. Life is tough but we have to do all we can to get things going again," said an elderly shoe-maker, sandwiched between Albanian and United States flags at the door of his shop.

Close on the heels of NATO troops, officials from UNESCO and other international agencies arrived in Gjakove to assess the damage. UNESCO has promised to work alongside the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, to repair traditional houses, bridges and historic sites at a total cost of DM 3.8 million.

Christina Molegan of USAID invited the owners of 39 destroyed shops in the town's ancient market to discuss how assistance should be coordinated - and has so far provided $428,000 to repair rooves and windows.

Some of the money has been allocated to the town's brick factory to produce roofing tiles. Another factory, Model, has been commissioned to manufacture ceilings and window frames. Other local companies are to supply construction materials.

A number of other foreign organisations, such as the Macedonian Center for International Co-operation, MCIC, are also co-ordinating reconstruction projects in the town. MCIC through its partnership with church organisations from Denmark, Finland and other Baltic countries is supplying technical and material aid to rebuild homes. A factory in Estonia, for example, is providing prefabricated housing kits, which the local authorities will initially allocate to the most needy.

Meanwhile, local Albanians and troops from the Kosovo Protection Force have started clearing roads and ruined buildings. Rebuilding the damage to historic centre of Gjakove is of great importance to locals. "One day, when everything is restored to its old glory, we shall forget what Serbs did to us and we shall say a big 'Thank you' to the international community," said one old shopkeeper.

Zeki Vehapi is a journalist in Gjakove.

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