Feature: Return to Kosovo - one brick at a time
KOSOVO (UNHCR) - Just one week after returning to Binçë, a village in the Klinë municipality in Pejë, Nebojsa Doncic, 41, the elected leader of a group of Serb returnees, says quietly but surely, "Somehow, we have already started life anew."
After three years of exile in Serbia, the convoy of 14 Kosovo Serbs, assisted by the UN refugee agency and the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), headed back to their village in late July. While their houses are being rebuilt, the returnees are living in UNHCR tents pitched with the help of the international troops in Kosovo (KFOR).
Today, the group is gathered inside an empty brick shell - the least-destroyed two-storey house in the area - where they are waiting to break bread for a late lunch. A few of them are taking a nap inside one of the tents. Some bricks and cement have arrived and workers from the German reconstruction agency, THW (Technisches Hilfswerk, or Technical Relief Service), are hard at work with their shovels and ploughs. Several construction trucks are also transporting materials to different sites.
The old village is now just a pile of rubble in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Literally preparing the ground for the returnees - cutting grass that had grown tall and wild over the years, cleaning and preparing the site - was already a lot of work in itself, says Houssam Mu'Allem, head of the UNHCR field office in Pejë. But that is nothing compared to preparing the social ground for the return of the Kosovo Serb minorities to the municipality situated in Kosovo's most war-torn district.
At this point, the municipality seems, at best, resigned to the idea of returns. Doncic and his group are aware of this. To date, the only Kosovo Albanians who have visited the group are the director and the deputy director of the hospital where Doncic used to work. And this seems to be more on account of their old professional ties with Doncic than anything else.
"Initially, people from the neighbouring village, Shtupel, indicated they would visit, but they never came. Maybe, it's still too early," says Doncic. He adds that he knows most of the people in Shtupel, with whom the Kosovo Serbs of Binçë, according to him, had good relations in the past - playing football together, sitting in the same cafés and visiting each other's villages, though never visiting each other's homes.
"It's not us or them to blame for all that happened during the war, it was something beyond us. I hope that all this will pass, that there will be contact soon and it will be back to normal one day," he says.
But while Kosovo Albanian visitors are hard to come by, the group is receiving many visitors from various international government agencies interested in the issue of returns. "We need all the help that we can get and we are being promised many things from all sides," says Doncic.
UNHCR has so far assisted the group with a water tank, food supply, multi-purpose stoves, firewood, as well as oil lamps while there are no electricity generators yet. The group also received donations of two refrigerators and a television set from the Coordination Centre for Kosovo (CCK), while the Spanish and Italian KFOR are helping with transport for the group to buy some supplies from Osojane, another Kosovo Serb return site in Pejë.
"Our role is to help you so you can help yourselves, help you be as independent as possible because we know that the context is very difficult," UNHCR's Mu'Allem tells Doncic.
While they are roughing it out in Binçë pending the reconstruction of their old houses, Doncic appreciates their new condition. After all, his family (he has two children) has been through rough times in Grosnica, a small village in Serbia, where, he says, all the former factory employees were on the streets trying to sell something. They survived on food rations from ICRC/WFP (International Committee of the Red Cross/World Food Programme), but lately this had been stopped and was now limited only to the very young and the very old people.
From working as an accountant in pre-war Kosovo, Doncic found himself struggling to find day labour in the streets of Serbia in order to make ends meet.
At the rate things are going now, he expects his house in Binçë to be ready for his family by September. "From day to day, it's started getting easier. We go through what we have to go through. We are seeing developments on a daily basis," says Doncic.
There is no doubt the returnees are glad to be back in Kosovo. Home is where the heart still is and it is good to see it rise again, brick by brick, three years after the war.
The oldest member of the group, 88-year-old Dragic Doncic, says: "I was born here and I lived here all my life until I fled to Serbia. My parents were also born here. That's why I had the wish to return in the first place.
"I was receiving therapy for blood pressure and other things while I was in Serbia. But since coming back here, I'm feeling so much better now, so I feel I don't need therapy anymore."
By Doreen Jose