In Kosovo, former neighbors warily eye each other

Efforts to encourage Serbs to return to the majority-Albanian area prove difficult.

Dragoljub Pantic looks at the ruins of his house and wonders if he can come back home again.

Three years ago, Mr. Pantic was among the Serbs who fled this village in western Kosovo, fearing the vengeance of returning ethnic Albanian refugees. Across Kosovo, tens of thousands of Serbs left their homes.

Now, Pantic is among a hundred non-Albanians who have visited what's left of their former residences in the province to decide whether to return. The UN-sponsored visits are part of an effort to promote a peaceful, diverse society in Kosovo, which is still struggling to recover from the aftermath of ethnic violence.

The province has been run as a virtual protectorate since 1999, when Serb forces were forced out by a NATO bombing campaign and ground invasion to end persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, who is now on trial for alleged atrocities at a UN war-crimes tribunal at The Hague.

Serbs who do decide to return home will receive money and materials to help rebuild their houses, and KFOR, the NATO-led Kosovo protection forces, will help safeguard them.

With only the stone walls of its houses remaining, Pantic's mountainside village, which once had a population of 400, looks as if it was decapitated in one swoop by a passing giant – in this case the ethnic Albanian population returning from exile to find its own villages destroyed by Serbs.

Despite the destruction, Pantic says coming back to Kosovo would be better than living in a crowded refugee center in central Serbia.

"Of course I want to come back," he says. "Ninety percent of us want to come back to the village to rebuild our houses and start new lives. Especially if there is a chance to get help. We have no money."

Destroyed property is only one of many obstacles facing the refugees. The biggest barrier to the return of Serb and other minority communities, such as Roma, sometimes referred to as Gypsies, is mutual suspicion and fear.

Just down the road from Pantic's village lies the bustling ethnic Albanian town of Peje, where memories of devastation wreaked by Serb army and paramilitary troops remain fresh.

Now the UN must convince Kosovo's majority Albanian population that the return of their Serb neighbors does not mean the return of the Serb regime.

James Rodhaver, a human rights officer with the UN's Office of Returns and Communities (ORC), set up to to assist voluntary returns and raise assistance money from donors, says a sense of neighborliness between the two groups will be hard to restore.

"In the past, people placed a high value on neighbors and neighborhood life," he explains. "You looked after your neighbor no matter what ethnicity he was.

"Now, one of the biggest sore points on both sides is that neighbors refused to help each other when the Serb army and the [Albanian] Kosovo Liberation Army came through. We are trying to reestablish this neighbor connection."

Denny Lane, an American working closely with the returns process as a UN administrator in the town of Vushtri in central Kosovo, says that although rebuilding houses and evicting squatters from minority properties is key to encouraging returns, the more important task is to prepare communities to receive their former neighbors.

"What we've tried to do is involve those members of Albanian society who can impact the way other Albanians think," Lane says. "One of the problems of reintegration is peer pressure. If I'm an Albanian shop owner, and a Serb or Roma walks in, will I refuse to serve him for fear of what other Albanians will say?"

A year and a half ago, four men from the Albanian-speaking Ashkali minority (who along with the Roma were accused of collaborating with the Serbs) were murdered when they attempted to bring their families back home to Kosovo, dealing a blow to the returns process.

Today, aside from a couple of hundred Serbs who have rebuilt one isolated village in western Kosovo there has been no large-scale return of minorities to the province. Those who fled – most of them Serbs – are deeply skeptical, citing hostility, lack of security, and freedom of movement, and discrimination in housing and employment as barriers to returning.

Despite ORC efforts to increase returns in 2003 and 2004, Belgrade politicians are critical of the lack of progress so far. Serbia is crowded with refugees from a decade of Balkan wars.

In a bid to force Kosovo's newly elected, majority-Albanian government to engage the population in moving forward on the returns issue, Kosovo's top UN administrator has made the return and reintegration of refugees and their freedom of movement prerequisites to determination of Kosovo's final status.

Anxious to gain independence from Serbia, the majority-Albanian population will have to prove its willingness to rebuild a multiethnic society before Kosovo's final status can be decided.

For the Serbs in Kosovo and their 22 elected representatives in the new Kosovo government, returns are the key to their existence in Kosovo.

"We lived with our Albanian neighbors before the war, and we can do so again," Pantic recalls. But he says he is not sure how they feel about him.

Although the few Albanians who live in Pantic's village were told of the Serbs' visit and encouraged to greet them, none did.

Mihane Halitaj, who stayed in her back yard, says she was frightened when she saw the Serbs arrive. "I am scared because they caught me here in my house three years ago," says Halitaj. "They beat my husband and killed his brother." Though Mrs. Halitaj says she does not know if her tormentors were the Serb Army or her Serb neighbors, she makes no distinction between the two. "I can never live with them again," she says. "I am still so afraid."

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