For refugees from Kosovo, a long way back home

When he was 5 years old, Yeton saw his grandmother gunned down by black-uniformed Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers. Then, his mother picked him up and ran out of the village toward the Montenegrin border.

"I wish we could go back to our house and our friends," he says, now standing on a road outside a refugee shelter. "I wish we didn't have to be hungry anymore."

Although four years have passed since they were chased from their homes by ethnic-Albanian militants seeking revenge for atrocities committed by the Serbian Army, many Kosovo Serbs, like young Yeton, have not given up hope that they might one day return.

Last summer, leading ethnic-Albanian politicians signed an open letter welcoming minority communities forced to flee Kosovo after the 1999 war here to come back home. The message briefly revived hope among refugees like Yeton and his extended family, who have lived in refugee camps in Serbia since the war. This year Yeton and an aunt tried to return to their village of Gorni Petric in western Kosovo.

But their road home quickly hit a dead end. "I went to visit our home, and our neighbors threatened me with knives and said we will be killed if we try to return," says Yeton's aunt, Vera Isaku. "Our houses have been burned and destroyed."

It's a common tale among the 240,000 refugees and internally displaced persons from Kosovo, mostly Serb and Roma (Gypsy) minorities, who found refuge in Serbia, Montenegro or Macedonia. Another 60,000 minority refugees from Kosovo are scattered across the rest of Europe. In the past four years only about 7,000 non-Albanian refugees have returned to Kosovo.

Kosovo was historically the poorest Serbian province, and Serbs have been drifting away for decades in search of better economic opportunities. However, it was once a haven for other minorities, such as the Roma, who often face discrimination elsewhere in Europe. The Kosovar town of Mitrovica once boasted the largest and most prosperous Romany settlement in the former Yugoslavia - 7,000 people, many of them skilled craftspeople and educated professionals. Today, not one of them is left, and their homes are rubble.

Sadima Toska once had a cozy home in that Romany neighborhood but now she and her seven children live in a refugee camp in the Serb-controlled town of Svechin. After four years of UN rations, these camps, which still hold tens of thousands of refugees, are being cut off from food and water aid as international attention turns toward the Middle East. "Of course, I would go back home at the first opportunity," Ms. Toska says. "But I am afraid we would be killed. KFOR [the NATO-led peacekeeping force here] says they can't guarantee our safety."

Attacks against minorities continue on a regular basis in Kosovo - everything from stone throwing to grenade attacks, arson and shootings - and most of the 100,000 Serbs and other minorities remaining in Kosovo are confined to isolated enclaves. Peggy Hicks, director of the Office of Returns under the UN administration of Kosovo, rates lack of security as the greatest obstacle to returning refugees, but the 70 percent unemployment rate in Kosovo does not help to bring émigrés back either.

Serb leaders call the invitation by ethnic-Albanian politicians propaganda, but Ms. Hicks and other international officials say it is a sign of progress. "Until recently, no politician here would say anything positive about returns,"she says. "Now, Kosovar politicians have realized that minority returns are key to their own future."

Kosovo's future remains in doubt. It is administered as a UN protectorate, though it is technically still a Serbian province, and Kosovar Albanians desperately want independence. Serbian and Kosovar Albanian officials have spoken recently of a date sometime in 2005 for final status talks, and a senior US official said Tuesday that such talks could begin in mid-2005 if Kosovo meets rule-of-law, democracy and other standards by then.

The return of minority refugees tops the list of conditions for independence set by international officials. As a result, Kosovo's Albanian political elite issued the open letter welcoming the refugees back, although most of the population opposes the returns. "Kosovo is for Albanians," says Palaj village resident Azem Dedinca, voicing a typical view. "Serbs and Roma have no place here. They killed Albanians or they collaborated with those who did."

In August, gunmen fired on Serb children swimming in a river near the Serb enclave of Gorazdevac in western Kosovo. The attack, which killed two youths, was timed just before 200 Serb refugees were expected to return to the area. The return was quickly aborted.

Only 24 men managed to return to the nearby village of Belo Polje before the attack, and they have set up camp amid charred ruins of their former homes, guarded constantly by Italian KFOR soldiers. "It is like living in a prison," says Radomir Kostic, a returnee who left his family in Serbia to help rebuild his village. "How can I consider bringing my daughters and grandchildren back to a place like this? On the other hand, what choice do I have? We have no chance living as refugees. We are not welcome in Serbia. They call us Albanians and refuse to give us jobs. Faced with two kinds of nothing, I choose my nothing, and this is the only home I have ever known."

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