Just days before NATO launched its 11 week campaign of air strikes against Yugoslavia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) withdrew its monitors from the province. The head of the OSCE team in the northwestern town of Pec, David DeBeer, left too. Soon after NATO-led KFOR troops entered Kosovo and Serb forces withdrew, DeBeer was back to promote democratic structures. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele spoke with DeBeer in Pec and got his view of recent developments there.
Pec, Kosovo; 30 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- OSCE's regional mission chief in Pec, David DeBeer, says that on his return to the town last June 22, it was "a total contradiction" to what he had known before the war. It was, he says, "empty, a ruin, a ghost city" marked by "dead silence and stray dogs."
"It is really an unforgettable experience to come back to a city which you have lived in and to find it deserted and destroyed."
DeBeer says much of the destruction occurred in June when Serb forces were leaving, because "they did not want the Albanians to come back" to Pec. Worst hit was the bazaar -- the market area around the mosque in the center of town, which was entirely gutted.
DeBeer says the last couple of hundred Serbs had taken refuge in the Serbian Orthodox patriarchate on the edge of town on the day of his arrival. The first Kosovar Albanian refugees, most of whom the Serbs had forced to flee over the mountains to Montenegro, had not yet started to return. DeBeer says that when they did return, they found widespread destruction.
"It was almost an indescribable situation of desolation at that point. And then even the next day people began coming back. And in a few days they were coming back at a rate of 5,000 a day, first shattered by the experience of seeing what had been their houses as many of them had been literally flattened and immediately people started to rebuild. Life began again."
According to the 1991 census, Pec -- Peja in Albanian -- had over 68,000 inhabitants and was the third most populous community in the province. Traditionally, relatively few Serbs lived in the town. They inhabited a number of nearby villages.
But Serb authorities fired most Albanians from their jobs in state-owned facilities in 1990 and brought in Serbs and Montenegrins, including many from outside the province, to replace them. An additional wave of Serbs, this time refugees, arrived after Croatia retook its breakaway Krajina region four years ago.
After Serb forces left in June, the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) established a local administration, which, although UCK-oriented, is not UCK-run. The UCK brought in people who were not previously active in politics. There has been no power vacuum in the town. By the time UN administrators arrived there was little for them to do.
DeBeer says the ten weeks since his return have been "amazing". The head of the local electric power plant issued a call for all Albanian employees whom the Serbs had laid off nine years ago to report for work. 110 showed up the following day and worked without any pay for seven weeks. They have ensured a fairly regular supply of electricity, though blackouts are common. The water supply enterprise and brick factory were also quick to rehire former Albanian employees.
The town has regenerated itself in other ways. The first to arrive were street traders from Albania who set up sidewalk stands to sell cigarettes and fruit. Local street vendors soon replaced them. DeBeer says:
"It was a great feast when four days later the bread factory opened. I was there and we sort of grabbed warm loaves of bread and just tore them apart and put hot bread in our mouths, because until then we had just been living off cold rations we had brought with us."
Within days, half the shops had replaced their shattered plate glass windows and commerce quickly moved off the sidewalks as shoppers went back to trading with merchants they knew rather than with unknown street traders. The first were grocery stores, followed by shops selling electrical supplies and building materials, and soon after: grilled meat joints and a pizzeria.
DeBeer says property ownership remains a key issue in the town.
"People wanted to claim the former state shops as their own property but the local administration just put up simple signs saying 'this is state property' or 'government property -- keep out!' The people obeyed, even though the Albanian local government had no form of trying to impose that edict. So they saved the town from that sort of general anarchy from claiming something, which was a very responsible thing to do at the time."
De Beer says that during the first week of July as people were still coming back, some Albanians tried to mark everything and even claim Serb houses if their own house had been destroyed.
The OSCE official says there was considerable confusion because the Italian KFOR troops had confiscated the local property ownership records, saying they could only be handed over to UN officials. But the UN was late in coming to Pec and only received the records three weeks ago. The UN has since handed control over them back to local authorities. The delay in resolving property ownership disputes meant that valuable time for reconstruction was lost. As DeBeer puts it, access to the files "came two months too late".
"This has also meant that foreign aid, which could be for example in building supplies like wooden poles, has not come in. And so [local Albanian residents] have taken the law into their own hands and are chopping down the trees -- environmentally dangerous -- but from their point of view very necessary to survive this ... winter."
What of the Serbs? All but some 15 to 20 elderly Serbs have left the town. The majority of Serbs who settled here in the 1990s are unlikely to return, although it is far from clear whether they have anywhere to go.