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Yugoslavia: Apprehension On Both Sides As Kosovo Serbs Return From Exile

Three years after fleeing Kosovo, members of 27 Serbian families returned to their villages near the central town of Klina/Glina last week, joining members of 15 other families who arrived in late July. The village of Bica is inhabited exclusively by Kosovo Serbs newly returned from exile in Serbia, while in Shtupel live Kosovo Albanians who returned to their homes shortly after having been expelled by Serbian forces at the beginning of the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele recently visited the neighboring villages to gauge the success of UN efforts to encourage Serbian returnees.

Bica/Shtupel, Kosovo; 9 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Little is left of the village of Bica (Binxha in Albanian), perched on an isolated hilltop in northwestern Kosovo.

Every home in Bica was burned down; some were subsequently blown up. Those few walls still standing are scrawled with anti-Serb and pornographic graffiti. Every fence has been dismantled. Each scrap of metal or wood has been carted off.

Who caused the damage, and when, remains a matter of conjecture. Albanians claim the Serbs burned their own homes when they abandoned the village. Serbs allege that much of the damage occurred in their absence, some of it as recently as this year, when it became clear to the Albanians that the Serbs would be returning from exile.

One large house damaged by an explosion belongs to Serbian returnee Radojca Doncic, a 37-year-old truck driver, auto mechanic, and farmer. Doncic spent the last three years in exile in Belgrade. "Now, I don't have anything left. It's a pity. It may sound strange when a guy looks around and nothing's left. I had 10 hectares of forest that had not been cut since 1945. These were mainly oaks. Now it's either cut or burned. You can see from here that the forest is completely burned. They say it was burned two months ago."

Looking onto the ruins of Bica, Doncic says virtually every Serbian family that left the village wants to return, though he concedes there is little to lure them back. "It's not much more than a camp now, and our freedom of movement is limited to [a radius of] 500 meters." "Normal life here isn't possible, as you can see for yourself. The situation is difficult," he adds.

Doncic says the Serbs began moving out of Bica in 1997 as the Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK, began making its presence felt in the surrounding hills. "Starting in 1997, people began fleeing the village. In fact, 60 percent of the village had emigrated in 1997 by the time the [Serbian] police arrived and pursued the terrorists [UCK] who were here nonstop. They had one goal -- to force us out of the village because it is on the border between Srbica [Skenderaj in Albanian, in the Drenica Valley] and Klina."

The rest of Bica's 100 Serbian and 20 Romany families left the village for exile in Serbia in 1999, along with withdrawing Serbian security forces at the end of 78 days of NATO air strikes. Doncic says they left because the newly deployed NATO peacekeeping force, KFOR, was unable to provide adequate security and because the Serbs felt that "the flood [of returning Albanians] would inundate us."

Today, the UN, through the UN Mission in Kovoso's (UNMIK) Reconciliation and Reintegration Unit, is encouraging Serbian returns. In a bid to ensure the safety of these returnees to Bica, Italian and Spanish peacekeepers from KFOR have established a temporary base in the middle of the ruined village, as well as a small outpost in a destroyed house on a nearby ridge.

These returns are still a trickle, though. At this early stage, it is individuals, rather than whole families, who are returning -- mainly elderly men.

One 75-year-old returnee -- who declined to reveal his name out of fear -- says he has come home to spend his final years in his native village: "[The Albanians] stole everything and set my house on fire and then mistreated me. [It's all] a provocation, not a life. But we have to suffer everything. There's no freedom here at all. I tell everyone that I've come back to my place. And I don't ask for anything but what is mine. I was born here, and this is where I'll die."

The old man says the days of friendship and peaceful coexistence between Serbs and ethnic Albanians are gone: "We never had any conflicts [with the Albanians]. No, no, no. But when they came wearing masks [in the late 1990s], they knew everyone. They were masked, and we believed that no one with whom we worked and lived freely would threaten us in our own homes -- people with whom we ate and drank. That's all gone. It's over."

Karolina Kottova is responsible for UNMIK's Reconciliation and Reintegration Unit for the Peja/Pec region, which includes Bica. The unit began its work at the end of last year.

Kottova concedes the devastation in Bica does not yet offer suitable conditions for families to return: "We are working out complex programs for the return of all these citizens, in which they will be provided with assistance in the area of reconstruction, not only of homes. We are also trying to bring them into the structures such as schools [and] health care. Of course, this can't be accomplished from one day to the next -- it requires plenty of energy. But we are trying to resolve these things, and 42 homes will be reconstructed this year [in three villages], thanks to donations by the German government."

The German Reconstruction Agency, Technisches Hilfswerk, is building new homes, using Serbian laborers, to replace those that were destroyed. A concrete platform is poured, after which builders take two days to erect the brick walls of the simple, 50-square-meter structures.

Kottova says wanting to return and having the courage to do so are two different things: "It is very difficult to say how many would like to return. They all say they want to return. But when you bring a bus to pick them up and ask everyone who said they wanted to return to get on the bus, only half of them climb aboard. I'd only emphasize that, in the end, it depends solely on them. We try to do the maximum, to create the conditions to enable the returns and to enable people to live here."

Albanian residents of Klina and of the nearest village, Shtupel (Stupelj in Serbian), fearful and wary of the former friends and neighbors they accuse of having committed atrocities, have staged two demonstrations against the returns to Bica in the past few days.

Nevertheless, Kottova says every displaced person has the right of return, a right that cannot be vetoed by local authorities or residents. She says precedence for returns is being given to the most vulnerable -- those without homes or jobs in Serbia but with property in Kosovo. Kottova insists the returns must be "voluntary, in dignity and only to the place of origin."

However, Doncic says it is the Albanians, being in the overwhelming majority, who are now calling the shots. For now, he says, communication with them remains virtually impossible: "We've seen each other [from a distance], but it is difficult. No one is able to overcome his pride and pay a visit to the other village. It's like separation by castes."

Doncic rejects any suggestion that anyone who has returned to Bica is responsible for committing atrocities: "As far as this village is concerned, I'm telling you, there is no one here who is guilty or who would do something like that."

Frustration with the slow pace of returns has led the nongovernmental Committee for the Return of Displaced Serbs to Kosovo to announce a mass blockade of the administrative boundary between Kosovo and Serbia beginning Sunday (15 September). Some 70,000 exiled Serbs are due to gather in a bid to enable the returns to begin in earnest.

However, the head of the UN Mission in Kosovo, Michael Steiner, after a meeting with Serbian Orthodox leader Father Sava at Decani monastery last week (3 September), told reporters there should be "a reasonable and sustainable return, not a collective and artificial return."

A couple of kilometers down the road from Bica is Shtupel, inhabited by an exclusively Albanian population. The Albanian residents here say they were terrorized by their Serbian neighbors from Bica in late March 1999, at the start of the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia.

Shtupel resident Brem Dylaveri, an agricultural worker, says that before the war, relations between the Serbs and Albanians of the two villages was "perfect." As he puts it, "We took care of each other."

Another Shtupel resident and agricultural worker, Mustafa Fejzullahu, says the trouble began in 1997 when Serbian authorities fired the area's Albanians from their jobs. "They wanted more bread and salt and wanted us to have less."

Fejzullahu notes that the following year, the Serbs alleged that terrorists were in the area: "In Kosovo, there aren't any [Albanian] terrorists, nor were there any. They [the Serbs] were the terrorists. We were clean. That's known. We were defending our thresholds, you know what I mean? Our homes! If anyone had asked us instead of listening to Milosevic, they [the Serbs] would have never left their homes."

Shtupel Mayor Arif Imeri, who is also a shopkeeper, survived five beatings, a failed kidnapping attempt, and numerous death threats by Serbian paramilitaries in the late 1990s because of his activities in the mainstream Albanian party, the Democratic League of Kosovo. He says that of Shtupel's 137 houses, Serbian forces destroyed 78. Of the village's 1,374 inhabitants, he says the Serbs killed at least seven, abducted four, who are still missing and presumed dead, and injured 12.

Imeri says Serbs from Bica commanded the police and the territorial defense for the area, as well as the secret police, and committed atrocities and massacres against Albanians throughout the region. "I think we Albanian people are not against the return of all Serbs but having in mind the role of the Serbs under the Milosevic regime. We are convinced that [the Serbs in Bica] have knowledge about the people who were kidnapped and are missing, such as the cases of Miftar Dauti, Fiton Dautaj, Hysen Dylaveri, and Burim Dylaveri."

The mayor is calling on Bica's Serbs to show some candor: "All we ask of them is to tell us where the missing are, those whom they kidnapped. The criminals, those with blood on their hands, should not return here. They are going about freely here and provoking [us] by showing us three fingers [the Serb nationalist salute].

Twenty-seven-year-old Shtupel resident Safet Dautaj says the Serbs should never have been allowed to return to Bica: "We think that our government and foreign governments made the biggest mistake regarding the village of Bica by enabling the returns [of Serbs] without having found the missing persons. First, they should have found the missing, be they dead or alive, and afterward, Serbs could return to their homes."

As Dautaj put it: "We lived together before the war. We were like brothers with the Serbs here. They came here, and we went there. No one would have believed that there are such terrible people here who could be so destructive."

But when asked whether the Albanians of Shtupel will let the Serbs of Bica live in peace, Dautaj says: "Criminals have no business being here. Never in my life will I accept them as neighbors or be glad to see them going down the road freely."

Many hurdles to peaceful coexistence remain. Residents in both villages are apprehensive about UN plans to have them use a single school building and clinic, both in Shtupel.

It will take more than time, patience, or international assistance. Above all, it will take goodwill and a willingness to discuss the past for the people of Bica and Shtupel to build a new future.