Feature: Returnees rebuild lives in Kosovo

News Stories, 16 January 2004

© UNHCR/S.Halili
A young displaced Ashkaelia in Plemetina collective centre helps his mother pack for their return to Magura.

MAGURA, Kosovo (UNHCR) When Smajl Adiqi fled Magura with his family four and a half years ago, it was smoking in the ruins of the Kosovo conflict. Today, he can barely contain his joy at returning to his reconstructed house in the village south of Pristina.

"This is a good house," he smiles as aid workers deliver mattresses and blankets, and install a stove to keep them warm. Food and firewood will be delivered later. Hava, his daughter-in-law, walks around and touches the walls to make sure it is real. "The house is so beautiful," she says as she is shown the bathroom and hot water supply.

Smajl and his family were among more than 230,000 people who fled their homes in Kosovo after June 1999, when Serbian forces pulled out of the province. Most of those fleeing were ethnic Serbs, but thousands of ethnic Roma also left fearing reprisals from ethnic Albanians who accused them of siding with the Serbs.

Smajl's family, who are Ashkaelia, returned to Magura, in the municipality of Lipjan/Lipljan, in December after spending years in Plemetina collective centre for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kosovo. Managed by the UN refugee agency, the centre was built after the conflict to shelter Roma, Ashkaelia, and a few Serbs and Egyptians who had to abandon their homes. Some 550 IDPs remain there today.

Smajl doesn't say much about life in Plemetina except that "it was hard living there." But life is not easy back at home either. Before the conflict, Smajl worked in the nearby Golesh mine along with some 1,200 people from neighbouring villages. Now 74, the grandfather of eight is trying to provide for his family with his social assistance of 57 euros a month. It does not help that his two sons do not hold regular jobs.

Magura, which used to house Albanians, Serbs and Ashkaelias, faces other problems. Health services are insufficient, while some families lack drinking water. But after a partial installation of a water system in Magura and in the area where mainly Ashkaelia live, chances for minority return have been created. The Ashkaelia displaced from this village currently live in the nearby villages of Vrellë and Medvec, and in the Plemetina collective centre. Other families from Magura remain displaced in Serbia and Montenegro, and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Smajl and his family are among the 210 persons who have returned to Magura since 2002.

"This return is the result of a series of meetings between UNHCR and Lipjan's 'Mediation Committee'," said Shkëlqim Shehu, UNHCR's Field Assistant in the Pristina office, adding that many other agencies and players have chipped in to make returns possible.

NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC) helped lay the groundwork for returns, while Irish non-governmental organisation GOAL and the American Refugee Committee (ARC) provided assistance to a number of returnee families.

So far, Dutch NGO Diakonia has reconstructed 12 houses and GOAL has rebuilt another 25 for the returnees in Magura, complete with water systems and electricity connection.

Spanish NGO Médicos del Mundo will help rehabilitate the Health House in Magura, which will benefit not just the returnees but also inhabitants in 12 other villages nearby.

ARC has facilitated go-and-see visits from Serbia and Montenegro and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia while Mercy Corps has started income generation projects for 21 families. The rest of the returnee families will be assisted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) through income generation projects.

© UNHCR/S.Halili
Returnee Smajl Adiqi waiting with his family as UNHCR staff unload their few belongings into their reconstructed home in Magura.

According to UNHCR's Shehu, several go-and-inform visits were organised in October and November for the refugees from Magura now displaced in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Deputy Head of Lipjan Municipality and representatives from UNHCR, GOAL and ARC met with 12 families who said they were interested in returning to Magura. Seven families in the former republic have already benefited from the reconstruction programme; six others are being assessed.

While the lack of property documents in some cases is an obstacle for returns to Kosovo, UNHCR, GOAL and the Civil Rights Project (CRP) are working together to solve the issue with the Kosovo Provisional Institutions of Self-Government and the UN Mission in Kosovo.

By Shpend Halili
UNHCR Kosovo