MALISHEVO, Kosovo, December 13 (UNHCR) - Ukë and Sabile Krasniqi have been waiting six long years for this day to come. The middle-aged Roma couple are finally realizing their dream of having a home of their own, where they can raise their large family of eight children.
Last month they left Plemetina, a camp set up in 1999 to provide emergency accommodation to some 1,300 displaced people belonging to Kosovo's minorities, which include Serbs, Roma, Ashkaelia, "Egyptians", and others.
The couple walked towards the newly-built apartment block in Malishevo (known as Malisheva in Albanian) that was about to become their new home, closely observing their surroundings, and the building itself. On the way, they greeted former neighbours, friends and acquaintances, many of whom they had not seen in years. After receiving the keys from the Head of the Municipal Assembly, they opened the door to a small first-floor apartment with two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and a balcony.
The whole apartment measures only 60 square metres. Not a lot of room for such a big family, which also includes Ukë's elderly mother. The Krasniqis, however, were not complaining. When asked how he felt about returning to his hometown, Ukë could only mutter, "Now I am happy."
Sabile, his wife, was more expressive: "My children will grow up as others, in normal conditions. They will continue their education here, and they will have space to learn," she said, clearly overjoyed.
Following a crackdown by the Serbian authorities in 1999, more than 900,000 ethnic Albanians were forced to flee Kosovo, only to return a few months later in the wake of a major military intervention by NATO. The exodus of some 200,000 minority Serbs, Roma, Ashkaelia, "Egyptians" and other minorities from Kosovo began within days and continued over the next few months. Although some 14,000 minority displaced people have returned to their homes, there are still more than 20,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kosovo. Six years after being placed under UN administration, UN-sponsored talks on the future status of the territory began last month, under the chairmanship of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.
In a welcome development, the Kosovo authorities - assisted by UNHCR and others - have taken steps to find housing solutions for the remaining residents of Plemetina Camp. With financial support from the European Agency for Reconstruction and the Greek Government, a total of four social housing projects are currently under construction.
The Krasniqis are the first displaced family from Plemetina Camp to benefit from the government's social housing projects. The apartments are for homeless IDPs who return to their areas of origin. They receive a one-time package of three months' food, household goods, firewood and miscellaneous items from UNHCR. Those with properties of their own are helped to repair or reconstruct them.
Kosovo's Minister of Environment and Spatial Planning, Ardian Gjini, remarked during the inauguration of the social housing project in Malishevo: "the beneficiaries of the housing project are people in need, and I congratulate the local authorities in the municipality for the initiative."
Although security and freedom of movement for the Roma population are improving, there are still areas in Kosovo where Roma and other minorities are not welcomed. Ukë's family and another Roma family from Bajë village will live together in the same building with Albanian families, but the protection of all minorities remains a major concern throughout Kosovo.
There are other obstacles facing the people of Kosovo - limited employment opportunities being one of the most serious ones. Before the war, Ukë worked as a blacksmith in Malishevo and also picked grapes for a living, but during his stay in Plemetina Camp he had no job. Both he and his mother received a small allowance each month, but it was not enough to cover all the family's expenses, and assistance from UNHCR - via the Mother Teresa Society - in the form of flour, beans, other staple foods, stoves and wood during the winter was crucial to their survival.
With the departure of families like the Krasniqis, the day when Plemetina Camp is finally shut down grows closer. Thanks to the ongoing social housing projects, and the support and cooperation of the donors, the remaining residents of the camp can also look forward to settling into their new residences - as Ukë and his family have just done - with all the renewed self-esteem and pleasure that come with having a place of one's own.
By Myrna Brewer Flood and Shpend Halili in Malishevo, Kosovo