Stark social divisions stand out in Mitrovica amid talks over Kosovo’s independence.
|Mustafa, right, had fled to Podgorica in Montenegro where her family lived in grim conditions|
Tanja Mustafa and her family have returned to the Roma Mahala district in southern Mitrovica eight years after they were forced to flee during the Kosovo war.
In the living room of her two bedroom flat in a newly-built apartment block, she told Al Jazeera that her’s was the last family to leave the neighbourhood in 1999 as the fighting between Serb forces and Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians destroyed the buildings around them.
About 8,000 members of the minority Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian communities lived in Roma Mahala before the war.
All of them were displaced but thanks to a programme co-ordinated by the local government and international agencies, some of them are now returning.
The Mustafas were among the first 19 families who moved into two buildings built barely one kilometre from her former home.
They were joined by another 92 people in October after two more apartment blocks were completed.
Daniele Rumolo from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that before the project was started the area had been devastated.
He said: “I got here in August 2006 and Roma Mahala looked like the moon, it was destroyed. In less than a year buildings had sprung up and almost 500 people had returned.”
Mustafa fled to Podgorica in Montenegro where her family lived in grim conditions, surviving by collecting rubbish.
“There was no other way to survive,” she said.
“After three months we wanted to return but Serbs in Macedonia told us that we shouldn’t because everything had been destroyed.”
The situations that other families had found themselves in were no less appalling.
Many had been staying in makeshift camps in northern Mitrovica near a disused and contaminated lead smelter, while eight members of one family had been living in a public toilet.
The municipal government in Mitrovica handed over almost three and a half hectares of land for the politically sensitive building project.
The south of the ethnically divided city is home to thousands of Albanians who are unable to return to their homes in the north while the Roma have received a significant amount of help.
|Mustafa’s was among the first 19 families
who moved into two buildings
Returnees received food packages for their first three months in their furnished flats.
A medical clinic has also been constructed on the site and a children’s playground is being built.
Sanije Kajtazi, who lived in a number of displaced persons’ camps in northern Mitrovica after the war, said that she had been concerned that ethnic Albanians would respond angrily to the scheme.
“I was afraid because for a long time I lived with Roma and Serbs,” she said.
“But, thank god, until now no one has said anything to me, I go down to the market and no one says anything to me.”
However, there is a continuous police presence at the site and Nato forces carry out regular patrols to make sure the Roma are safe.
Shubhash Wostey from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees said: “Everyone was anxious, how are people going to react, how are the returnees themselves going to feel when they return. The patrols are more psychological to give the returnees a feeling of security.”
There are few jobs in Roma Mahala and some people have decided not to come back as they have the opportunity to earn a living in the places they fled to.
Mustafa said: “The main problem is employment, like everywhere in Kosovo it is employment.”
However, residents have recently set up a number of small shops including an internet cafe and a dressmaking shop, benefiting from a scheme that means they pay no rent for the first three months of their tenancy.
The apparent success of the scheme has created considerable interest among those who are still displaced.
“We get phone calls every day as people have seen others returning,” Wostey said.
The municipal government has given permission for five more buildings but the challenge for the international agencies is raising the money to finish the process of returning the Roma.