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Yugoslavia: Kosovar Albanians Rush Back To Homes Despite Risks

With Serb troops withdrawing from Kosovo, many of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians who had fled the province are now beginning the journey back to their homes despite calls from international officials that they wait until conditions are safe. RFE/RL analyst Fabian Schmidt reports on why many refugees are likely to continue ignoring the call to delay their return.

Prague, 18 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - International aid agencies have been surprised by how quickly many Kosovar Albanians have packed their belongings and begun the journey back to their homes, just days after NATO forces entered the region.

The aid agencies have called on the refugees to stay in their camps for at least a few more weeks, so that military experts can check roads, villages and houses for mines and booby-traps, reinstall water and power supplies and make sure that there is a sufficient amount of food available. They have argued that the refugees are taking great risks by returning. But many refugees have not been prepared to listen to the arguments.

The toll that some of them have paid is high. Within only half a week 20 people have been injured and at least two killed by mines.

Still, the agencies have to recognize that they will not be able to stop the Kosovars from returning, even before the withdrawal of Serbian troops is completed. The rush of so far over 20,000 back home, despite the various dangers, shows that the refugees are impatient. Moreover, it indicates that they are eager to get started quickly with building a new future after more than ten years of discrimination since the province's autonomy was stripped by Belgrade. They see Kosovo as their liberated homeland rather than as an ugly theater of some of the most vicious crimes against humanity committed since World War Two. Thus, in the search for a new democratic future, they are willing to embrace a land marked by the horrors of ethnic warfare and almost complete destruction.

The example of the many thousands of Kosovars who have joined the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) has contributed to the impatience of the others to go home. Even though it was NATO that finally took control over Kosovo and made sure that the Yugoslav forces withdrew, most of the UCK fighters feel that what has happened is "their victory" as well. These fighters represent all parts of Kosovo's society, from villagers to university students, including women's brigades. Many of those guerillas joined at the height of the Serbian crackdown in 1998 or 1999 and will not stay with it much longer. They were "citizens in uniform" and will go back to their towns and villages. Thus the UCK will diminish in size without outside pressure very soon, in addition to the changes that will come because of its scheduled demilitarization. In the end, the former fighters will be among those reconstructing their country.

The urge of Kosovars to go home has generated a vital momentum that the international community should not only respect but support. The initiative these refugees show today can become crucial for the success of Kosovo's reconstruction and development in the long run. The more initiative the Kosovars take, the more certain it is that theirs will be a success story. Many of those who have returned so far are not willing to wait because they are confident they can cope with the challenges facing them at home quickly and efficiently by simply getting started. They do not want to wait for the permission and support that may or may not come from international bodies. Many refugees perceive these bodies, which will have to cope with hundreds of thousands of remaining refugees, as largely anonymous.

In particular, self-reliant villagers from the more remote parts of Kosovo do not trust the bureaucracy of government or international aid agencies. They are often prepared to take their tractors home on their own within a day or two. They know that it is not too late to plant something that they can harvest before winter. Many prepared their fields before the beginning of the ethnic cleansing in March and April, and thus are eager to get home sooner rather than later to look after whatever remains of their crops.

Similarly, the traders and craftsmen in the cities and market places will want to reopen their shops and businesses, another essential factor for rapid economic recovery. To this end, the international community and the new UN-led civilian administration should from the beginning focus on ensuring full freedom of movement, not only for people within Kosovo, but also for goods and services between Kosovo on the one hand and other parts of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania on the other.

It is important that individual refugees can go back and forth to Kosovo to create the preconditions for their families to follow later. Therefore, reviving and improving public transport, primarily with busses and mini-busses, between all these areas is of paramount importance. Macedonia and Albania should be encouraged to conclude free-trade agreements with the Kosovar interim administration. This will serve these countries' own interests. Mobility will thus generate prosperity.

The international community could promote such efforts from the beginning in order to give Kosovo's reconstruction a head start. It will serve everyone's interest to reduce customs formalities between the neighboring countries to a minimum in order to facilitate a quick flow of goods and services. The UN administration should install a western-trained customs administration to help apply liberal policies to be set by the Kosovars and their neighbors.

During a meeting yesterday in Skopje, Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski de facto recognized UCK leader Hashim Thaci as his counterpart from Kosovo. The only other government in the region that has done so was that of Albania's Prime Minister Pandeli Majko.

These three southwestern Balkan leaders have begun to show a willingness to develop a joint vision of future regional cooperation. They will now have to show that each of their countries can profit from a policy of cooperation. Kosovo needs the two others for its own reconstruction and the two need Kosovo as a partner to ensure that the still ongoing refugee crisis does not destabilize them. If it is sincere in wanting to build peace, democracy, stability, and prosperity in the region, the international community should continue these trends.