Six Albanian-speaking Roma families returned to their hometown in Kosovo this week after nearly three years in exile in Serbia in what is expected to be the start of a large-scale return of displaced Roma and Serbs. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele spoke to the returnees and their Albanian neighbors, as well as to United Nations officials about the difficulties they face.
Vushtrri/Vucitrn, Kosovo; 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Six families of Ashkali, or Albanian-speaking Roma, returned to their hometown in Kosovo on 17 April under a United Nations-sponsored program. The return came almost a year later than originally planned. Their ethnic Albanian neighbors have greeted the return but are warning that not every former resident will be welcome.
Before the war three years ago, some 130 Ashkali families lived in the municipality of Vushtrri/Vucitrn. Around 100 families eventually fled. The Roma were widely viewed by Kosovo's Albanians as helping the Serbs and of looting Albanian homes.
The UN mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK, said "the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes in Kosovo is an important step in leaving behind the legacy of war and conflict" and "a major step in Kosovo's journey to joining a free and democratic Europe."
The UN administration's civilian-affairs officer for Vushtrri/Vucitrn is Guy Houdegbe, a native of the West African state of Benin, who has five years' experience in looking after Rwandan refugees in Congo. He said four Ashkali families briefly visited Vushtrri last year under UN auspices to see what was left of their homes, many of which had been damaged or destroyed in their absence or else occupied by displaced Albanians. At the time, the local authorities were unable to provide satisfactory answers to basic questions about housing, reconstruction, employment, and security.
Houdegbe said the UN stepped in by rebuilding the displaced-Albanians' houses so they could return home and free up the properties belonging to the Ashkali.
"Before the six families returned, we went several times to Vojvodina in Serbia to meet them to explain the situation to them that they need to return because now their houses are empty. And those who want the reconstruction activities -- I think we also have an NGO which agrees to rebuild the 10 houses for them. Last week, I was in Vojvodina. I talked to them and initially 18 families were able to return and we sent a list to the municipality. The municipality cleared the list and 17 were allowed," Houdegbe said.
They had until this week to return if they want to be involved in the reconstruction or to recover their vacant homes. But those who came were not those whom the UN had expected to come. A second group now says it too wants to return within two weeks, so the deadline has been extended. The deadline is to ensure that the returnees are present during the reconstruction process.
"Those who want their houses to be reconstructed -- they need to be here to collect the materials, to follow the reconstruction process on the ground," Houdegbe said.
The leader of the six families, Rama Sherrifi, said his people are satisfied to be home and will be even more satisfied when all their people return. "If the Albanian community has nothing against the return of other members of the Ashkali community, I'm sure this action will continue."
Sherrifi said his house survived the past three years intact but that its contents were stolen. And he also said there is plenty of enthusiasm among the Ashkali to return, provided the first six families encounter no problems. Sherifi said he has been promised his old job back as a mechanic at the Kosovo Electric works.
Sherrifi said the Ahskali left because of threats by members of what he calls "Albanian paramilitary forces" -- the since-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK. But he added that the Albanian civilian community did not threaten the Ashkali.
Conditions in Novi Sad were, as Sherrifi put it, "tragic." He said, "We had to pay rent; we didn't get enough assistance; there was ethnic discrimination." Their children were barred from attending school in Novi Sad.
Ramiz Elishe, also an Ashkali, is hosting all 16 returnees in his home across the street from the returnees' homes and said he is happy to host any returnees.
A KFOR patrol has set up a monitoring post on the corner in an apparent bid to ensure there will be no unrest.
Across the street, the young owner of a kiosk selling UCK and Albanian patriotic memorabilia -- including clocks, patches, and flags -- said he has no problem with the return of most former residents.
"All Ashkalis who didn't do anything bad during the war are welcome to return -- old men, women and children. But there is no place here for those who committed crimes during the war. All the neighbors know. Some of my cousins know. All of Kosovo knows about that. I saw with my own eyes [that] they burned houses. They stole. They cooperated with the Serbs."
But Houdegbe interrupted the kiosk owner to say that those who are alleged to have committed crimes will not be allowed to return for the time being. "Before we allow the people to come, we clear the list with the municipality. They simply go through the names and say 'yes, yes,' before we allow people to come. None of the Ahskali who [committed] crimes during the war will return now."
The municipality's commissioner for minorities, Tafil Hyseni, a member of President Ibrahim Rugova's moderate Democratic League of Kosovo, or LDK, said he does not foresee any difficulties in resettling the Ashkali or in future, the Serbs.
"Serbs who are not incriminated in the war should return to their homes. Kosovo is open today for everyone. Some lost their houses, others are still occupied [by displaced Albanians], but the municipal assembly is fully aware of this situation. In the end, everyone has understood that Kosovo doesn't want to live in violence, following a decade of Milosevic's totalitarian regime. Not only Albanians suffered, all ethnic groups suffered," Hyseni said.
No Serbs are currently working within the municipality administration.
Nelly Sabarthes of France is the UN's local community officer in Vushtrri/Vucitrn and oversees six Serb-inhabited villages in the district, totaling some 4,500 out of what she said was a prewar population of between 6,000 and 7,000 Serbs. She said that, although large returns of Serb residents are likely in the coming months, the main focus initially will be on improving the living conditions of Serbs currently living in the municipality. She said it may take "months or maybe another year" until those conditions for the return of Serbs are established in the municipality, although she added that it is possible that matters will be accelerated.
"This is very ambiguous because UN agencies and international organizations, including UNMIK, are talking about returns for the year 2002," Sabarthes said.
Sabarthes said there is a growing awareness within the local Serbian community that things have changed and that the Serbs "will have to make a step forward if they want to stay here." Yet she says the Serbs don't know which direction to go since they are waiting for some guidelines from Belgrade. She said they still feel as if they are living in a part of Serbia.