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Feature: The unseen returns to Kosovo

Feature: The unseen returns to Kosovo

While the focus has always been on returning Serbs, throughout Kosovo significant successes have also been achieved in assisting the return of the Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptian communities to their place of origin.
16 October 2003
Maxhit Haliti was the first to return with his family to Azotiku neighbourhood in Obeliq.

PRISTINA, Kosovo (UNHCR) - Ismet Ramadani just got married, but no honeymoon has been planned. He is working on a number of horseshoes that have to be finished by tomorrow. It's hot outside the small blacksmith workshop in Prekoc, the Serb-majority village in Gjilan/Gnjilane where Ismet lives together with his new family and his brother's.

"My father taught us the job he did all his life," says Ismet. "Before the war we had customers coming from everywhere. After the war, we left to Bujanovac and when we decided to come back, we had nothing but this skill. Now we can work again."

The workshop is part of an income-generating project by the American Refugee Council, UNHCR's implementing partner in the region. Ismet is one the 211 Roma who have returned to the Gnjilan/Gnjilane region since the end of the conflict in Kosovo, in addition to 110 Ashkaelia and Egyptians.

More than 230,000 people fled Kosovo for Serbia proper and Montenegro in the summer of 1999, as Serb forces withdrew from 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.

As the conflict abated, much focus was put on returning Serbs, but throughout Kosovo significant successes have also been achieved in assisting the return of the Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptian communities to their place of origin: 808 Roma and 2,078 Ashkaelia and Egyptians so far.

The stream of returns started in May 2002 when 31 Ashkaelia families went home to Vushtrri/Vucitrn town after three years of displacement in Novi Sad, Serbia. This return resulted from over a year of meetings with the local authorities, negotiations with the receiving community, and go-and-see visits to prepare the ground for the return.

At first, there was a housing shortage. With some 6,000 houses destroyed in the town during the conflict, returning Albanians in 1999 had moved into houses the Ashkaelia abandoned when they fled towards Serbia or collective centres inside Kosovo. Eventually, an intensive reconstruction process helped resolve the housing shortage, but rebuilding the trust and the confidence between former neighbours proved to be a greater obstacle.

The local authorities were instrumental in breaking the ice for returns to Vushtrri. Faced at one stage with a worrying deadlock, Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi intervened in support of the return. The Special UN envoy at the time, Michael Steiner, chose Vushtrri for the launch of UNMIK's (UN Mission in Kosovo) Principles of Sustainable Returns in a joint effort to emphasise the fact that minority returns include all ethnic groups.

Since then, Ashkaelia families have trickled home in a less organised manner. Spontaneous return movements can take place, but it is important for the local authorities to get involved as there is still significant resistance. The last four years have shown that the return process can be sustainable only if there is an understanding in the receiving community of the right to return for all ethnic groups.

Although each region and municipality has its own characteristics, some common denominators can be found when it comes to the return of Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptian communities.

Property problems are common: large numbers of families have inadequate property documentation or never formally owned the property they occupied as it had been handed over from one generation to the other informally.

In some completely abandoned locations, the absence of a Roma, Ashkaelia or Egyptian anchor community makes the return practically unfeasible. As a result, many families decide to return to already established but overstretched communities like Shatori and Koloni neighbourhoods in Pejë/Pec and Gjakova/Djakovica municipalities respectively.

In June, UNHCR Kosovo and Council of Europe organised a workshop to provide a broader understanding of the human rights-based framework for dealing with the Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptian communities.

The workshop travelled the five regions, involving key local authorities and relevant international organisations in discussions on responsibilities and obligations to secure the rights of the communities in terms of access to education, social and humanitarian assistance, right to return and property issues. The discussions also raised the important issue of confidence in the rule of law and the legal system and political representation in local institutions.

Returns of these communities met significant success in Pristina region. Ground-breaking returns to formerly mixed communities abandoned by them have been achieved in Magura and Mala Dobraja (Lipjan); Azotiku neighbourhood (Obelic), Lismir (Fushë Kosovë) and Vranjevac (Pristina).

The effect is cumulative because once the first returnees are received, more are able to follow. The return in Magura broke a standstill in the negotiations for the return in a nearby village, Mala Dobraja. Nevertheless, small-scale returns to the Albanian majority areas can be energy- and time-consuming. In Lipjan, almost two years have been invested in inter-ethnic dialogue, with active involvement by the mediator's committee. Yet the numbers of the returnees are small: 23 families in Magura and six in Mala Dobraja.

After four years living with his relatives in Fushë Kosovë, Maxhit Haliti returned to Obeliq, to the so-called Azotiku neighbourhood. "We came back in May," he said. "It was difficult for the six of us to share the space with another family, but we had no other option. Things are not perfect, not even here, but at least we have a house now."

Azotiku is a big reconstruction effort targeting 22 families - all, except Maxhit's, displaced in Plemetina camp. Again, there were long negotiations between the receiving community - reluctant to accept the displaced people - and the latter themselves, whose security concerns were still a big hurdle. Fearing harassment, the displaced people asked for a wall around the complex of the houses before the return. Still, only four families came back out of the 22 originally planned.

The return of the 13 Egyptian families to Dubrava - a village in Istog municipality - from Montenegro in August confirms how long the process can be. Negotiations with the receiving community in the village started in spring 2002, but only after several meetings and go-and-see visits did the atmosphere finally became more receptive one year later. Once the ground is prepared, the next difficult issue arises on funds to support reconstruction and community development projects.

"My six kids are still in Montenegro," says Daut Dolci, a 45-year-old returnee representative. "I am still paying rent there until the house here is finished. Some of the children are under medical treatment there, still traumatised as they saw their houses burnt. It will take time for them to recover."

They receive food and non-food items from UNHCR upon return, as "before the war we made our living mainly by producing food for cows, we will start soon to work on our land again. It is important."

Some of their former neighbours have already visited the returnees. There were smiles, handshakes, relaxed chats, some hugs - first steps on the long journey home.

By Monica Ellena
UNHCR Kosovo