Displaced Serbs live in limbo

Refugees' fate hangs in the balance as dispute over Kosovo's status continues.

    The common wish among refugees in Serbia's Mirijevo camp is to return home to Kosovo

    In 1999, more than 800,000 principally ethnic Albanians were expelled or fled Kosovo after an onslaught by forces of Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia.

    Nato forces reversed the flow when their Kosovo Force (KFor) troops entered the province following a bombing campaign to drive Milosevic's forces out in June that year. The result was a rapid return of ethnic Albanian refugees.

    However, as one flight returned, a new exodus began. This time more than 170,000 Kosovo Serbs fled into Serbia and Montenegro after violence erupted immediately after KFor's arrival in Kosovo in 1999.

    Stanka Nedejkovic is one of Kosovo's Serbian displaced. A mother of four children, and a grandmother of one, a native of Kosovo's Istok province, she was a cook in Kosovo, and now - fortunately, Stanka says - she works as a cleaner in a school in Belgrade.

    She left Kosovo on June 14, 1999 as she "no longer felt safe" in her two houses and one apartment in the agriculturally rich village.

    Fear of reprisal

    Kosovo's Serbs left Kosovo in fear of reprisal attacks following the return of ethnic Albanian refugees distraught after Milosevic committed atrocities against them in 1999 - despite promises from KFor that they would be protected.

    Sanjin said that Serbia's 'collective centres'
    were at full capacity
    "I only brought some winter clothes, and a few family pictures, because I thought I would be returning back home soon," Stanka said.

    "For the first six months we lived separately because, luckily, we had many relatives around Belgrade.

    "A year and a half later my husband went back to our village [in Kosovo], but he only got to within a kilometre of the house because KFor stopped him.

    Stanka said "about 70 people stayed in our town after June 1999", but that a couple of months later they disappeared.

    Lidija, Stanka's daughter, said: "My teacher was discovered chopped to pieces. DNA tests proved it was him.

    Unsustainable return

    Sanjin Pejcinovic, a collective centre IDP representative, said that 36 families now live in the Mirijevo camp, 4km east of Belgrade, of which Stanka's family is one.

    "In 1999, the international community managed to return about 500,000 Albanians to Kosovo," he said.

    "Over the past nine years, only a few thousand Serbs have returned, so it seems that another 50 years are needed for a real return for Kosovo Serbs."

    "Everyday, Serbia's Ministry for Kosovo receives requests for returns to Kosovo. [But] it seems the international community does not want to create conditions for return," Sanijn said.

    "Attempts have been made - a concept paper, "The handbook for sustainable return", was put together, but it was not realistic and was never realised."

    Since 1999, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), says it has been providing "an array of assistance measures for return and reintegration of all ethnic communities," to ensure "the overall creation of a multi-ethnic democratic society in Kosovo".

    Full capacity

    Stanka only brought a few winter clothes and a
    few pictures to Belgrade after fleeing Kosovo
    Sanjin said Mirijevo's 137 residents out of 1,280 displaced from Kosovo, like many of Serbia's "collective centres", is at full capacity and little assistance is granted to them.

    "The camp received food aid and assistance from donor governments and aid organisations until 2005. But, humanitarian organisations then estimated that we needed no more help.

    "IDPs here continued to receive one meal a day from 2005 to 2006," he said. "But now, the only food aid that Kosovan Serbs in Mirijevo get is bread from the commissariat for Serbian refugees.

    Serbia's commissariat for refugees states that the number of Serbian "collective centres" has reduced from 388 in 2002, to 77 in 2008.

    But Sanjin said that only three families have returned to Kosovo from Mirijevo, and Lidija says that they live in fear that they may be uprooted every day.

    "One day were were told by local authorities that the camp was going to be demolished the next day because the land needed to be returned to its owner," she said.

    "Luckily it wasn't, but it means we live in fear everyday."

    Cramped conditions

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    Only five and a half months after their arrival in Belgrade did the Nedejkovic family manage to reunite in the camp.

    Now, though happy to be together, they live in cramped conditions, with one bathroom between 14 people. But they count themselves lucky.

    In other camps around Belgrade, there are more than 300 families to one bathroom, Lidija said.

    "For the first two weeks [in Mirijevo] there was no water or electricity at the camp. My mother was sat outside guarding the entrance so that nobody tried to break in and take our things. It was overcrowded, with rubbish everywhere."

    Sanjin said the people in this camp are resourceful, hard-working people.

    "All their hopes are pinned on returning to Kosovo.

    "The people here are mainly from rural Kosovo. They used to have a substantial amount of land, they used to be farmers, and now they're reduced to receiving what little humanitarian aid is provided.

    "They are socially vulnerable."

    'Second-rate citizens'

    Lidija said that many medical staff do
    not recognise their papers
    "My husband, who was a factory worker in Kosovo, has diabetes, and he can't work," Stanka said.

    Her youngest daughter has a heart condition because she is teased at school about her Kosovan dialect and she has struggled to integrate.

    "She doesn't accept that they may not return," Stanka said.

    A tearful Lidija said: "I was a hairdresser in Kosovo, but now, I'm still unemployed.

    "It's a big city, we're treated differently, like second rate citizens ... discriminated against. Many Serbians don't understand our situation and think we are trying to take their land and jobs.

    "There is a national employment service in Serbia but they never came to inform us of our rights," she said.

    "People from from Kosovo do not have official healthcare IDs, only papers," she said. The result being that some medical workers do not know what they are and don't accept them, she said.

    At one point, Stanka's family tried to build a home near the camp, on the outskirts of Belgrade. They managed to take out a loan to buy some land, but got into too much debt and after building one wall, they had to stop, Lidija said.

    Life in limbo

    "We have tried to build our lives here for nine years and it will be very difficult for us to return," Stanka said.

    Stanka, left, and Lidija said they would
    not hide their Kosovo Serb identity
    Despite this, Lidija said she would never hide from her identity.

    Kosovo's declaration of independence on February 17, "broke my heart", Lidija said - not because she felt Sebs and ethnic Albanians couldn't live together - but because she felt Serbia's politicians had failed to manage the territory properly, and now they have no real home.

    "They don't know what Kosovo is. It is the heartland," she said.

    For many of Serbia's 207,000 displaced Kosovan Serbs, life remains in limbo without any formal agreement over Kosovo, nor any formal recognition of their status.

    But "the common feeling among residents is that they want to return", Sanjin said.

    "Between the people here, when they say goodbye, they say: "See you in Kosovo". It is not just a piece of land. This is a spiritual and historical motherland."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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