Feature 14 Dec 17

Homecoming Kosovo Serbs Face an Uncertain Future

The secrecy surrounding a newly-built settlement in northern Kosovo highlights the problems facing Serbs who have returned to Kosovo after the war – and how they need security and jobs as well as houses.

Milan Radonjic BIRN Mitrovica, Istok, Skenderaj/Srbica
 Milorad Tomasevic, a Serb who returned to his village in Kosovo after fleeing in the post-war period. Photo: BIRN.

On windswept Little Zvecan Hill, overlooking the town of Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo, protected by a barbed-wire fence and wrapped in a cloak of secrecy, a settlement called Sunny Valley is taking shape.

Sunny Valley began in May 2016 as a joint venture of the Serbian government and the Orthodox Church as a future home for Kosovo Serbs who since the war in 1999 have been unable to return to their homes south of Ibar River which divides Mitrovica between Serbs and Albanians.

It is intended to be a new community on an isolated, previously barren piece of land, although the Serbian government has displayed unwillingness to disclose any details about its construction, or about who might live there in the future.

BIRN made a series of approaches to officials at Serbian government’s office for Kosovo for information about Sunny Valley, but even after initially agreeing to respond, they failed to do so.

A settlement ‘closer to God’

The main street in the new Sunny Valley settlement near Mitrovica. Photo: BIRN.

"I do not know whose wonderful idea was to put this project at the top of the mountain," says Marko, a taxi driver, as we go up Miners’ Road, a name that has echoes of Mitrovica’s Trepca mine complex.

"Maybe they wanted future inhabitants to be closer to God. Anyway, we have almost forgotten that it even exists. They have built the road but I think that is about all they have done."

Marko is disillusioned and suspicious about all sorts of things, including my motives.

Upon arrival, a tall barbed-wire fence and a death’s-head sign with high voltage warning disturb him further. He wants no trouble, and would prefer to be paid and leave right away.

It is early morning and the caretaker is nowhere to be seen, but Marko is reluctant to wait. We agree he will stay for 10 minutes.

Inside the settlement, pavements and main streets have been laid out, with electric lampposts, but not much construction is visible, apart from five or six medium-sized buildings, none of which is finished.

According to the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo, some 220 flats should be built here. The project includes a kindergarten, shopping centre, social club, ambulance station and sports facilities. But not much work is going on.

Parked trucks and heavy machinery seem to have been stationary for an extended period, and only the sound of carpenters’ hammers indicates that a roof is being constructed on a larger building on the right of the main street. On the way there, several hundred metres down, our walkabout is interrupted by the driver of a black Renault Clio.

"What are you doing here?" asks a heavy-set young man through the open window of the car. "Did you know it is forbidden to enter here? This is the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church, have you seen the sign?"

But these questions are of a rhetorical nature anyway.

He doesn’t wait for answers, nor is he in the mood to talk about construction permits, the timeframe for the completion of the project, or anything else for that matter. Before long, we are at the front gate again, and soon I am back in Marko’s cab. He is kind of pleased that I got kicked out. I fit his profile of a spy.

On our way back he shows me Brdjani settlement, built for Albanian returnee families. Its construction sparked a protest in the Serb community as it was interpreted as a colonisation of the Serb-majority north of Kosovo by Albanians. It also doesn’t appear very lively, or finished for that matter.

‘A product of Kosovo reality’

Vesna Malikovic runs the office for returnees in the Istok municipality. Photo: BIRN.

"Despite the criticism directed at the Sunny Valley project at the [recent] meeting with ambassadors of the Quint countries [an informal decision-making group that includes the US, France, Germany, Italy and Britain], I personally support it," Dalibor Jevtic, the Minister of Communities and Returns in the Kosovo government, told BIRN.

Jevtic described it as "a product of Kosovo reality".

"Sunny Valley is the result of the inability of Serbs to return to Pristina, Djakovica, Musutiste and other towns. If this was otherwise, we would not have to think about solutions like this one," he said.

According to Kosovo’s Ministry of Communities and Returns, some 240,000 Serbs fled their homes after the Kosovo war and only 10 per cent of them have returned so far. This year, 343 people moved back, almost 50 per cent fewer than in 2016.

The Kosovo government’s strategy is to provide the right conditions for return for all those want to come back, tackling key issues like property that has been taken by others while its owners were away, but also providing socio-economic support to ensure sustainable returns.

"We have coordination with the Serbian government in order to ensure that our projects do not overlap," says Uros Staletovic, a spokesperson for the Kosovo Ministry of Communities and Returns.

There are some success stories, one of them in the Istok municipality in Kosovo’s eastern Pec/Peja area, to which 17 families have returned this year alone. There I meet Vesna Malikovic, the person in charge of the local office for returns.

"It hasn’t been easy, but we are making progress," says Malikovic.

"However, it is not enough to build houses and expect the people to come back. They need to rebuild their lives, piece by piece. It is like putting together a mosaic, and it takes time before the image of the whole emerges from the broken parts," she explains.

Last May, Milijana Miljkovic and her husband Ranko returned to their new house in the village of Dragoljevac, which has been built right next to the old one, which was almost completely demolished back in 2000. Only the foundations and main pillars are still there.

Before construction work could start, tons of garbage had to be moved, in order to level the terrain.

"With the Albanian neighbours, we only exchange regards when we pass each other," Miljkovic says.

"They do not come to our houses, and we do not go to theirs. But the children are so sweet, they ask, ‘Are you tired?’ This is all new to me," she tells Malikovic with a smile.

"I promised them they will again be the biggest household here in Dragoljevac, as once they were," Malikovic replies to both of us, with an obvious effort to ensure that every word she says has an encouraging and uplifting tone. "How can you not support them when you see such will [to succeed]?"

One of the projects that Malikovic supports is so-called ‘multi-ethnic honey’, an initiative made possible by the Danish Council for Refugees, which provided returnees with beehives.

The harvest is due next year so at the moment, making ajvar (Balkan pepper relish) and selling it in Belgrade is how Miljkovic contributes to the family budget.

"When we got back we didn’teven have pots or anything, but we organised ourselves and sold every jar we made," she recalls.

She and her husband wanted to come back in 2006 and stay in tents, but it was too difficult for them, so they waited. Finally, when they returned to the new house last May, the rest of their property looked like a tip.

"All the trees were cut down and even the wells were filled up with garbage. All the way from the main road to our house there were big walnut trees. They are all gone now. But we will plant them again. You could not see the house behind the rubble and other trash that was piled up. So this was the first thing to do. We took out 40 truckloads," she says.

Miljkovic said they were first offered a house in a new settlement in Osojane, but she and her husband rejected it.

"We could never make a living there. It is not my village, not my place. Home is home. There I would feelas if I was living in somebody else’s house," she explained.

But now, after so many years spent living on the outskirts of Belgrade, there is another problem - their children have now got used toliving and working in the Serbian capital.

"I think the children will also come backwhen they see we are settled here once again. I hope and pray for that day to come," she said.

‘Work is the only way to survive’

Beli and Natasa Zuvic at home in Istok. Photo: BIRN.

Today there’s a slava (patron saint’s celebration) at the home of Beli and Natasa Zuvic, the first one in their new house since 2000, when they fled their village.

The table is laden with food, with a candle in the middle, and we are welcomed in to join the celebration. There is no chance of turning down a sip of slivovica (plum brandy). It is obligatory.

"Work is the only way to survive," saysSlavko Nikolic, sitting at the head of the table.
He and his wife are the only Serb family who have come back to live in the town of Istok.

Like most people without a job in a state institution, they are making a living from agriculture, growing potatoes and watermelons. The problem is how to sell their produce, however, so Slavko makes brandy out of everything he grows, and is storing it until he can find a way sell it.

Natasa is quick on her feet and keeps a constant grin on her face. She is overjoyed to be back in her home again.

Her husband Beli also smiles all the time. All of a sudden he says, addressing both himself and everybody else: "The other day, standing on the doorstep, I turned around and saw the peaks of Prokletije [mountain range]. I never knew we could see it from here."

Beli and Natasa invite us to visit them again next year when their back yard is cleared of the all little mounds of waste overgrown with vegetation, and as we leave for Osojane, we promise to do so.

In Osojane, the largest village in the Istok municipality, Serbs started to return long ago, back in 2001.

Malikovic shows us the village’s brand new youth centre. There is a swimming pool behind it. But the tractor parked at the entrance makes her frown, as her intention was to make this place for young people to go out. It belongs to one of middle-aged man drinking beer in the corner.

"For young people before, it was tough," says Marko Ostojic, who is managing the place.

"We either had to go for Mitrovica, which is 60 kilometres from here, or Gracanica or to Serbia, so we hope this centre will change it."

Marko was 21 when he came back to Osojane with his parents in 2006. It was more difficult then, he remembers, as there was a lot of distrust.

"Now things are looking better. I have recently been to Pristina, to discotheques there with my Albanian friends," he says. "It was really great."

‘Peace is the most important thing’

Vasilije, Milena and Dine Tomasevic at home in Suvo Grlo. Photo: BIRN.

Some Kosovo Serbs have returned to their homes without any support from the authorities.
As we drive towards his home village of Suvo Grlo in the Drenica region, Dine Tomasevic explains how his life changed back in February 2000 when the bus he was in took a hit from a grenade launcher.

"It happened just there at this turn, where it has to slow down, you see. I was sitting by the window, and the bus was full of people," he says as we pass the village of Vitake.

"There was a blast, and instantly the whole cabin was full of smoke.You couldn’t see anything, so at first moment I did not realise I was hit. But then I lifted my arm, and saw my hand was shattered."

Then he looked down and saw blood gushing from his leg, while the same shrapnel that hit him killed a man in the next seat.

"Someone gave me his shoelace and I tied up the leg by myself," he recalls.

He was taken to the Mitrovica hospital by a French unit from NATO’s Kosovo force, KFOR. He lost his index, middle finger and a significant part of his upper thigh.

It took years for him to recover, his ability to work is reduced, but his goodwill and determination remainstrong. Now he works at the elementary school in Suvo Grlo as an accountant.

"I even got married," he says proudly, with a humbling enthusiasm for life.

At his family house, which he shares with his father, brother and his spouse, his young wife Milena is holding their infant son Vasilije. Dine made him a basketball hoop out of scrap metal.

Life here is modest but good, he says. The trouble is that the village often doesn’t have drinking water during the summer months.

He would like to have a house of his own, but without assistance, it is still just a dream.

"When you return by yourself, the government thinks you have everything, but it is not the case. We could also use some support, as these are far from ordinary conditions that we are living in," he says.

His elderly father Milorad makes fifes – simple, traditional wind instruments. The best are fashioned from the wood of plum trees, juniper or ash, he says. He has even built one into his walking stick.

People in the village used to have much more cattle, he says, but there was a lot of theft.

"It was the war, and bad things happen," he says.

Milorad has lived here almost his entire life, and lived through World War II as well as the 1990s conflict in Kosovo, and his simple words come from bitter experience.

"Life is precious to all. Even ants hold it dear. So peace is the most important thing. Every state’s rulers should bear that in mind."

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