Feature: "Floating" Albanians need concrete assistance
BITI E ULËT, Kosovo (UNHCR) - Roses and apple trees are blooming once again in a Balkan village that time forgot. Neat vegetable gardens have started yielding healthy peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. The Albanian half of Biti e Ulët in Strpce, a municipality in the south-east of Kosovo, is no longer a ghost town. The Albanian villagers who left en masse four years ago have been back for some time now to live together again with their Serb neighbours.
It sounds like a fairy tale. And, indeed, this village would make for a good postcard of countryside idyll with all its spring-green meadows and gurgling brooks, except that if you look closer you will see that in the Albanian half of the village, most of the houses are charred beyond repair. The Albanian villagers who have come back home starting last May are currently living in inhuman conditions, trying their best to salvage what remains of their old houses with recycled materials like plastic sheets and wood scraps. They took a great risk in coming back, and did it without asking any help from the international community. With their own hands, they cleared the place even before it could be checked for landmines.
"This return is the only successful return of minority Albanians to a Serb majority area in Kosovo thus far," says UNHCR protection officer Marie Whalen.
In September 1998, the Albanians of Biti e Ulët came home from work to find their houses razed to the ground, allegedly by Serb forces. All 60 Albanian families, or 370 people, were displaced and ended up moving between the houses of relatives and friends, mostly in the nearby town of Ferizaj.
On May 8 this year, 26 families came back. The number has since grown to 33 families, or 219 people. In the summer, over 100 returnees were staying in the village permanently, but many have since left, including all the children, because of the dismal living conditions.
The returnees' hands have been far from idle all this time. The men, including 92-year-old Liman, now keep themselves busy building a chicken farm for Mercy Corps' donation of 1,600 chickens, on top of tending to their gardens. Between themselves, the Albanian villagers wryly joke that at least their chickens will have accommodation, so things are not really that bad.
"We're just staying here without any perspective because we've run out of options. All we need is a little assistance. A little bit of concrete and bricks would really go a long way. We can reconstruct the houses ourselves," says Milaim, 54, a father of seven school-age children.
Emergency dry-room assistance by the American Refugee Committee (ARC) was possible only for five out of 32 houses in the village, as the rest of the houses are too destroyed and unstable. Many of the Albanians who have since returned are sleeping in hazardous conditions, exposed to the elements in the ruins of houses, without windows and doors, under leaking roofs.
Liman, still spry at 92, says, "I've seen three wars in my life. I was born in 1910 and I was a child during World War I, then I served in the Italian trenches as a soldier of the Yugoslav Army during World War II. But the latest war was the worst. It devastated all our families."
Life was good once upon a time, they all say. Nazmi, 42, who "squats" around in Ferizaj like many others, visits his old village on sunny days. Before the conflict, he had a good job teaching grammar for 22 years in the mixed school in Biti e Ulët. He used to have a big house with a garden and a byre for his 15 cows. These days, Nazmi wears plastic shoes and moves from one house to another every few months or so. So far, he has moved nine times in Ferizaj. Of his old life, only the well of his old house has been rescued through a well-cleaning project by the UN refugee agency.
It is perhaps the good memories that keep these people coming back to Biti e Ulët. In fact, one of the first things they did upon returning was to rescue the rose bushes in the village. They also brought with them seeds from Ferizaj so they could replant their gardens at once.
In the first two months, the Albanian returnees were isolated and depended on assistance from the international community. But now they are free to move around and even get supplies from the Serb shops, where their children have started to learn their first Serb words. One of the returnees has bought a cow from a Serb villager, now the lone and sacred cow in Biti e Ulët, where there used to be so many. With the chicken farm, their plan is primarily to supply the Strpce local market as well as the Hotel at the Ski resort in the municipality, like they did before the conflict.
Bexhet, 67, lives in the empty shell of his old house at the end of the Albanian half of the village. He has managed to revive his vegetable and fruit garden next to a Serb garden. He says he has not had a problem with his Serb neighbour since coming back.
The critical mass is clearly here, not only in numbers, but also in quality - this group is made up of highly capable people who used to be teachers, construction foremen, carpenters, farmers, and so on. On sunny days, more of them come back and clean what remains of their old homes in Biti e Ulët. But with the nights getting too cold, it is getting increasingly impossible for the hardiest of them to stay in the destroyed houses.
The returnees say it will take them no more than a month to build new homes, and they believe they have the necessary skills to do it. If they do not get the reconstruction assistance before winter sets in at the end of November, they may have to leave. Not all will have the same courage to try again next year.
By Doreen Jose