Kosovars Return, Find Serbs

Home to what?

Once a wealthy lumber village in the foothills of the Rugova Mountains, the village of Locane was abandoned by the ethnic Albanians in May, just as the Serbs began an offensive in western Kosovo - and artillery shells fell.

Months later, hardly anyone has returned. Weeds grow in the rubble that used to be a house. Spider webs stretch across a charred door frame. Laundry hangs in a yard, stiff as wood.

Locane is like hundreds of other villages in Kosovo. Despite the desire of the international community to get some 300,000 displaced ethnic Albanians back to their homes, that prospect seems daunting here.

"The first reason people haven't come back is they are scared," says Zenel Kasumaj, one of the few returnees. "The second reason ... Everything is destroyed."

Mr. Kasumaj, an engineer, came back a month ago to bury a brother killed by a burst of machine-gun fire from the woods above. He and 14 extended family members moved into another brother's house, one of the few spared in the attack.

Their worst fear, they say, is a confrontation with their new neighbors, the policemen who moved in just up the road, despite NATO's call for a Serb withdrawal.

For now they remain focused on making do with what they have: rugs that are singed around the edges, wooden chairs borrowed from the abandoned house next door, plastic sheets where there used to be windows.

But the presence of the Serb police is more than a distraction.

Under last week's agreement between US envoy Richard Holbrooke and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian police and Yugoslav Army are supposed to significantly withdraw from Kosovo by Oct. 27 or face NATO airstrikes. In this region, the opposite appears to be happening.

The police have taken over the local schoolhouse and on Wednesday could be seen carrying a bed through the front entrance. "We got this from one of the those houses," a policeman said, pointing toward a cluster of crumbled stone walls.

Inside the schoolhouse, about six policemen had set up a home, with beds, a kitchen, and stacks of canned goods and juice cartons. "We'll be here for a while," says the officer. "We're here to protect the villagers."

Nearby, in a large house surrounded by a high fence, more than a dozen policemen and Army soldiers sauntered about in half uniforms, some of them wearing flip-flops. A group sat around a table.

"Ali Muraj is the owner of this house," says their leader, who identified himself as Commander Mrki. "He can come back as long as he's not a terrorist. But we know he is!"

The presence of the police officers and Army soldiers in this region appears to be a violation of the Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement, although the deal was set in vague terms. Serb forces are supposed to reduce to their prewar level of February, when they clearly were not occupying ethnic Albanian houses and schools.

Several police officers interviewed seemed unaware of their exact status under the agreement.

"We have police units doing their regular duties to help the return of [refugees]," says Bosko Drobnjak, provincial minister of information for Kosovo.

"The regular duties mean police are preserving peace and order. Whenever we have terrorists, the police have to do these things," he says. "As soon as the people come back, the police will release the houses."

But the police presence deters refugees from returning. At a checkpoint on the road leading to Locane, police ask potential returnees for identification cards and write down their names, the villagers say. Of the 1,100 people who used to live here, only about 40 are back.

YESTERDAY, the Kosovo Information Center, the main Kosovar Albanian information service, reported that a family of ethnic Albanians trying to return home illegally from across the Albanian border was killed by Serb police.

Within Kosovo, about a sixth of the displaced persons have returned, estimates Laura Boldrini, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency.

Of the total 300,000 displaced, she says, about 50,000 others remain out in the open in settlement camps, often without adequate protection from the elements. Another 50,000 have left Kosovo for Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, or Albania.

Valdet, a 19-year-old who returned to Locane a month ago from a nearby village, said he had to tell the police he did not have an ID card, so he could lie about his age.

"I said I was 17," he explained, just before running off to catch a stray horse. "If they knew my real age they would have thought I was a member of the [secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army] - and they would have taken me to jail."

Another primary factor deterring refugee return is the sheer destruction in the villages. Many Yugoslavs - Serb and Albanian - do not trust the banks, so they invest all their money in their houses. When their house is shelled, they have no hope of rebuilding it on their own.

Kamer Himaj, another returnee in Locane, stood with his family in the courtyard of his house, which for some reason had been spared the Serbian barrage. They live off flour reserves and milk from their two cows.

"We came back three weeks ago," he says. "The house was not damaged so bad, but they stole our television, two sewing machines, a washing machine, and carpets. I guess we're lucky."

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