Some of Kosovo's displaced welcome independence, others fear it

News Stories, 19 May 2008

© UNHCR/M.Flood
Returnees arrive at the new housing in Mitrovica's Roma Mahala area.

MITROVICA, Kosovo, May 19 (UNHCR) Ethnic Roma who have returned to Mitrovica after fleeing the divided city almost a decade ago are sanguine about the future following Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia.

Some said they believed that independence, announced on February 17, would improve their lives and usher in an era of prosperity and employment. In contrast, some of the displaced Serbs in the territory, while determined to remain in Kosovo, fear that they could again become the targets of ethnic violence.

Members of both communities fled their homes in 1999 when Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanian population most of whom had fled persecution earlier that year returned after the withdrawal of Serbian security forces.

In Mitrovica, more than 8,000 Roma living in the south of the city fled to the north when returning Albanians attacked the minority group for their perceived close ties with Kosovo's Serbs.

They lived in camps under dire conditions, but while most are now in Serbia or overseas several hundred have in the past two years returned to new homes built in the Roma Mahala area of Mitrovica by the international community.

Lindita Gashi* returned to Roma Mahala with her husband and four children last October after years spent in northern Kosovo's Osterode camp for internally displaced people. Life was difficult.

But she says her life has improved vastly since returning to Mitrovica, where her children are enrolled in school, her husband earns a decent wage from collecting and selling scrap metal and one of her children can get regular medical treatment for health problems brought on during their stay in Osterode.

Gashi said she welcomed Kosovo's declaration of independence, which Serbia has protested against to the UN Security Council. "Independence is a good thing," she said, adding that it would lead to more investment from overseas and more employment opportunities. "I now hope to get a job as a cleaner in the health centre."

But many displaced Serbians in Kosovo, which the Russian Federation, China and many other countries still recognize as a province of Serbia, are not so optimistic about the future. In a southern town, the Jovanovic* family tries to live as normal a life as possible, but they have faced difficult times.

The father works as a bus driver for minority communities, while his wife looks after the house and their two children. Despite the problems, they are determined to remain in Kosovo and live in hope of one day being able to reclaim the apartment on the other side of town that they fled from in 1999. "My deepest desire is to live and die in the place of my birth Kosovo," the wife said.

She added that she hoped independence would mean official recognition and protection for displaced Serbs in Kosovo, but added that some members of her community feared that with independence they will once more become the targets of ethnic violence.

UNHCR plays a crucial role in the protection of minorities in Kosovo, said Martin Loftus, head of the UNHCR mission in Kosovo. He added that with five field offices and close to 80 staff in Kosovo, UNHCR was "able to efficiently monitor the situation of internally displaced persons as well as minority returnees."

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Peninah Benine Muriithi in Pristina, Kosovo