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The Situation for Serbs, Roma, and Other Non-Albanian Minorities in Kosovo After the Violence

The March violence left nineteen persons dead, 954 wounded, 4,100 persons displaced, 550 homes destroyed, and twenty-seven Orthodox churches and monasteries burned. An additional 182 homes and two Orthodox churches or monasteries were seriously damaged.181 An overwhelming number of the displaced Serbs and other non-Albanians are elderly and impoverished. They remained behind in Kosovo despite earlier violence because they were too poor or old to leave. Most of the displaced Serbs and other non-Albanians explained to Human Rights Watch that they had lost homes that took decades of hard work and saving to build.

More than 2,000 persons remained displaced at the time of Human Rights Watch’s April research mission, and were often living in miserable and overcrowded conditions. Many of the families burned out of their homes in Svinjare and Obilic were living in unheated, unfinished apartment buildings without access to water and electricity in Mitrovica and Zvecan.182 Human Rights Watch also found displaced Serbs living in metal trucking containers in Gracanica and Ugljare. Hundreds of displaced persons are also housed in school buildings in Gracanica and Mitrovica, in crowded conditions that provide no privacy and inadequate sanitation. Displaced Serbs from Prizren are located at a gymnasium on the German KFOR base, displaced Serbs from Belo Polje are located at the Italian “Villagio Italio” KFOR base, while hundreds of displaced Ashkali from Vucitrn are living in a muddy and crowded tent camp inside the French KFOR base at Novo Selo. Several families are being housed in single tents. The historic monasteries of Gracanica and Decani are also housing displaced Serbs.

Both the Kosovo Provisional Government (PISG) and the UNMIK institutions have focused most of their attention on reconstruction of the destroyed homes, eager to overcome the setback to Kosovo’s image caused by the ethnic violence. However, little attention has been paid to the actual wishes of the displaced Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities. When UNMIK and PISG officials held a ceremony in April 2004 to mark the reconstruction of the YU Program apartment buildings in Pristina, attended by foreign journalists, they failed to invite the displaced residents, most of them living in nearby Gracanica, or even to inform them that the event was taking place.183

Human Rights Watch found that opinions differed widely among displaced Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities as to whether they wanted to return to their homes or leave Kosovo. Ljubisa Pleskonjic, a thirty-six-year-old electrical engineer who voluntarily returned to Kosovo (Prizren) in September 2003 wanted to leave again: “I left a good job because I wanted to come back to Kosovo, to my birthplace. Now, I don’t want people to pay me for [my apartment]. I want four plane tickets in one direction: as far away from here as possible.”184 Eighty-year-old Mladen Gligorijevic, also from Prizren, was equally adamant about leaving: “We want to be paid for all of our possessions and then we want to leave Kosovo. We just want to leave Kosovo and never see Albanians again. Our [Albanian] neighbors didn’t even help us. There is no living together anymore.”185

On the other hand, there were also many displaced Serbs who wanted to remain. Milos Necic, also from Prizren, explained: “For me, the alternative to leaving Prizren doesn’t exist. Prizren had five monuments dedicated to my ancestors, and some of my relatives were hanged during World War II by the fascists.”186  Many of the displaced elderly Serbs are too impoverished to start a new life outside Kosovo, and don’t have relatives who can support them—the primary reason why many have remained despite the daily difficulties of life as a non-Albanian in Kosovo. Many of those who wanted to return to their homes insisted on more stringent security. The Serbs of Belo Polje, who were already preparing to return to their destroyed homes when interviewed in April, explained:

We didn’t ask for barbed wire—we came at the request of the government to coexist with the Albanians. But now that we saw the Albanians don’t want to coexist with us, we want the barbed wire. It is the only healthy relationship between us and our neighbors.

It is important that the PISG and the international institutions listen to the wishes of the displaced communities, and not force a solution—such as rebuilding of their homes—on the displaced. Security is a primary concern for all of the displaced—those who want to leave and those who would prefer to stay in Kosovo—and a necessary pre-condition for reconstruction and return. But most of all, the displaced persons must be allowed to make an informed choice, and must be given options, including the possibility of resettlement outside Kosovo.

Many of the persons affected by the March violence had only recently returned to Kosovo, some with the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration. Fedaim Kelmendi abandoned his application for asylum in Belgium in January 2004, and returned to his home in Vucitrn after IOM assured him it was safe to return. IOM provided him with free plane tickets to Kosovo, and provided transportation to his home in Vucitrn. Njazi Pllavci, an Ashkali, returned to his home in Vucitrn in May 2003 with the assistance of UNHCR, because he was no longer able to support his family in Serbia. The Serbs of Belo Polje returned after receiving security guarantees from KFOR and UNMIK, as well as rebuilding assistance.

The return programs implemented by IOM, UNMIK, and UNHCR should be seriously reconsidered in light of the March violence. Persons should not be returned to an area where their safety cannot be guaranteed, as this contravenes the fundamental principle of voluntary return in safety and dignity. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has clearly enunciated this position following the March 2004 violence:

UNHCR’s position remains that members of all minority groups, particularly Serbs, Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptians as well as Bosniaks and Goranis should continue to benefit from international protection in countries of asylum. Induced or forced return movements jeopardize the highly delicate ethnic balance and may contribute to increasing the potential for new inter-ethnic clashes.…As far as individuals from Kosovo are concerned who have applied for voluntary repatriation, it is very important that refugees’ decisions are taken in full knowledge of the recent deterioration of the security conditions in general and minorities in particular.187

UNHCR advocates against involuntary returns to Kosovo, and argues that “those individuals [outside Kosovo] who applied for repatriation prior to mid-March 2004 should be given the possibility to reassess their application.188

The ongoing danger to minority communities in Kosovo was underscored in the early hours of June 5 with a drive-by shooting on a group of Serb teenagers in Gracanica, despite the presence of KFOR checkpoints in the town.189 The attack left sixteen-year-old Dimitrije Popovic dead. Although the United Nations announced the arrest of two ethnic Albanian suspects on the same day, the shooting was a troubling echo of March 15 killing of Jovica Ivic.190

[181] OSCE, Department of Human Rights and Rule of Law, Human Rights Challenges Following the March Riots, p. 6.

[182] A small minority of the displaced found more comfortable accommodations in a housing complex built to accommodate displaced Serb professors from the University of Pristina.

[183] Human Rights Watch interviews with Radojka Raskovic and Zivka Savic, Gracanica, April 17, 2004.

[184] Human Rights Watch interview with Ljubisa Pleskonjic, Prizren,  April 12, 2004.

[185] Human Rights Watch interview with Mladen Gligorijevic, Prizren, April 13, 2004.

[186] Human Rights Watch interview with Milos Necic, Prizren, April 13, 2004.

[187] UNHCR, “UNHCR Position on international protection needs of individuals from Kosovo in light of recent inter-ethnic confrontations,” March 30, 2004.

[188] Ibid

[189] Shaban Buza, “Serb boy killed as tensions rise in Kosovo,” Reuters, June 5, 2004; Garentina Kraja, “Serb teenager killed in drive-by shooting in Kosovo,” Associated Press, June 5, 2004.

[190] UNMIK Press release, “SRSG’s statement on the killing Gracanica [sic],” [UNMIK/PR/1194], June 6, 2004.

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