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No going home to Kosovo

John Dyer
11 October 2005

It is a busy diplomatic autumn over Kosovo, the contested territory of former Yugoslavia whose constitutional status and future have been frozen since the 1999 air war which ended in the withdrawal of Serbian forces and the installation of Nato peacekeepers. Kosovo’s limbo is shared by some forgotten casualties of the aftermath of that war just across the border in southern Serbia.

Savich Milosh took more than his restaurant when he fled Kosovo in 1999. By pulling out of the province’s capital, Pristina, and setting up again in Krusevac in southern Serbia, the ethnic Serb helped remove one of the ingredients for peace in the war-torn region. “When I crossed the border, I stepped out of the car and kissed the grass”, he said, describing the day he and his family left their house and business behind and sought refuge in Serbia.

In the weeks leading up to the Serbs’ flight, ethnic Albanians vandalised Milosh’s restaurant and held him and his son hostage for a day, until United Nations peacekeeping troops intervened and saved them. Now the Milosh family are officially registered as “internally displaced persons” (IDPs). They’re Serbian citizens, but are expected to be Krusevac residents only until the future status of Kosovo is settled and they return home. Until this is resolved at a political and diplomatic level, there is little chance of that; many IDPs fear their homecoming would spark violence. “I can’t go to Kosovo”, said Vladimir Milicevic, a Pristina native who now lives in Krusevac. “If someone hears me speaking Serbian or recognises me, in the best case I’ll be beaten.”

The sorrows of war

The United Nations took over the administration of Kosovo in May 1999, after US-led bombing raids brought an end to a vicious, low-level conflict between ethnic Albanians and the Yugoslav army that had broadened into a campaign of systematic deportation of Albanians by the government of Slobodan Milosevic. In October 2000, Milosevic was overthrown in his Belgrade fiefdom after he tried to “fix” the presidential election, and in June 2001 was transferred by Serbia’s new government to the International Criminal Court in The Hague where he is now standing trial for war crimes.

openDemocracy articles on the break-up of Yugoslavia include:

Alix Kroeger, “Bosnia’s war of memory” (August 2002)

Dejan Djokic, “The assassination of Zoran Djindjic” (March 2003)

Dusan Velickovic, “Belgrade: war crimes in daily life” (June 2005)

Ed Vulliamy, “Srebrenica: ten years on” (July 2005)

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More than 225,000 IDPs, mostly Serbs, fled Kosovo when Yugoslav forces withdrew, according to the Geneva-based NGO, Global IDP Project (although, like every fact – especially every statistic – connected to the past, present, and future of Kosovo, this figure is disputed). By the end of 2004, fewer than 10,000 had returned. This depleted even further the size of the Serbian minority in Kosovo, around 10% of the population before the war.

UN officials are examining how they can withdraw from running the day-to-day affairs of Kosovo and negotiate the province’s independence. But the UN Security Council resolution 1244 of June 1999 calls for the return of IDPs before the province can break away from Serbia & Montenegro, the truncated remnant of former Yugoslavia.

The UN’s special envoy for Kosovo, Kai Eide, released a report on 7 October on the territory’s political and economic progress under UN administration. It was sent to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who will present his conclusions on Kosovo’s future status to the Security Council on 24 October.

On the provisional government’s progress in creating the tolerant, multiethnic Kosovo the UN and the international community says it wants in Kosovo – Eide comments that “(the) situation is grim”. Indeed, few people seem to be working to achieve this goal. Most diplomatic energies are being devoted to a fundamental question of sovereignty: to whom should Kosovo belong?

Most shades of opinion in Serbia bitterly oppose Kosovo independence. The province is considered the cradle of Serbian national identity; near Pristina is the location of the sacred Kosovo Polje, the “field of blackbirds,” where the Ottoman Turks defeated a Serbian army in 1389, ushering in centuries of Ottoman domination and Serbian resistance.

The position of the Serbian government with regard to return to Kosovo is ambiguous, according to Barbara McCallin, a researcher who follows the Balkans for the Global IDP Project: it formally defends the rights of Serbs to return while at the same time, low return figures give it ammunition in the argument over final status. “The government is using (the IDPs), so they can say the standards for independence in Kosovo aren’t being met”, McCallin says.

The pain of exile

The UN also hasn't done a good job of enticing IDPs back. The few who have returned often have nowhere to live, as Albanian squatters customarily occupy former IDP homes. UN officials set up a system to resolve property claims, but, as of 2004, less than half of the almost 30,000 claims received have been resolved, the Global IDP Project found. Only 900 evictions of illegal occupants have taken place.

Reports from Kosovo describe crowds gathering and throwing stones at houses claimed by repatriated IDPs. In March 2004, severe rioting in which Kosovar Albanians burned Orthodox churches and schools in the few areas where Serb communities still lived cost nineteen lives (eight of them Serbs).

At the same time, McCallin says, the Serbian government doesn’t want IDPs to settle in Serbia. That would eliminate them as a hurdle to be cleared before Kosovo can achieve independence. “They [Serbian politicians] don’t want them to integrate”, she said. “If the government gave them proper conditions, the incentive to return is nil.”

The impasse leaves IDPs stranded in a kind of internal exile, with many lacking opportunities for economic advancement. Around 54% of IDPs are estimated to live below the poverty line; as a whole, they remain (in the words of the Global IDP Project's report of September 2005, "stuck between uncertain return prospects and denial of local integration". Most perform odd jobs or seasonal work to make ends meet.

Since they left southern Kosovo six years ago, Savo Subotic has lived with his wife and eight other families in a collection of rundown shacks outside Krusevac. Everyone in the compound is unemployed. The local municipality permits them to use the shacks, but there’s no electricity or running water. Many of the men spend their day drinking rakia, a strong Balkan brandy.

“We didn’t live as rich people [in Kosovo], but we had normal conditions”, Subotic said. “Personally, I am bitter. My mother used to work as a delivery nurse. She helped Albanian women with birth. I wouldn’t be angry if they gave me money for the land I had down there. There’s no more living between Albanians and Serbs.”

The Serbian government provides little assistance to Subotic and his family. For a while, he said, local Serbs were jealous of them because they received aid from international relief organisations when Serbia and Montenegro’s economy was collapsing under a UN-imposed trade embargo. But the aid stopped some years ago.

“Our time is from the time of Slobodan Milosevic”, said Maria Subotic, Savo’s daughter-in-law. “Everyone has forgotten us.” They receive food and clothes from neighbours, but don’t always feel welcome. “Some locals here see us as Albanians because of the way we speak”, said Maria.

Many IDPs have fallen into despair. Unlike refugees, who don’t live in their own countries, Serbian IDPs feel betrayed because they have been uprooted yet still live in their own countries, said Diana Spalevich, an IDP in Krusevac. Spalevich worked for a Spanish relief organisation as a counsellor for IDPs after she fled her hometown of Pec in 1999.

“They don’t want to accept the reality that they should move on”, she said. “They couldn’t mentally stand everything that happened. They thought the government would take care of them. It didn’t.” Spavelich’s parents still live in a collective centre, a state-run housing project for IDPs. They live largely on her paycheque from her job with Mercy Corps, a US-based NGO that fosters economic development in south Serbia.

“To this day, my father cannot deal with it”, Spalevich said. “For a year, we had problems with him. He was just drinking. Now he’s quiet. But he suffers.” In places like Krusevac, the legacy of conflict in this unresolved corner of southeast Europe remains.

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