A home reclaimed after a 'cleansing'

A family picks up the pieces of lives disrupted by war in Kosovo.

The children begin the healing.

As their parents silently confront the wreckage of their farm for the first time since it was allegedly torched by Serbian police in March, the youngsters rush to the orchard where they know the cherry trees are bursting with fruit. Scrambling into the branches, they gleefully fill their mouths.

Red juice stains chins, hands, T-shirts.

It's not long before the adults join in, their worries about the future briefly set aside as they savor the sweetness that tells them they are home.

"This was always their favorite place," smiles Elez Sulimetaj amid the children's squeals of delight. The clan, he says, has eaten cherries from these trees for as long as it has owned the farm and its embracing sweep of sun-sweetened pastures. No one is sure how long that is, but they can name nine generations of patriarchs.

A week earlier, none of the 19 adults or 21 children of the Sulimetaj clan believed they would ever again see the two adjacent compounds from which they were driven into exile with about 800,000 other Kosovar Albanians. But their distress abruptly turned to hope when Belgrade agreed to withdraw its forces from Kosovo under the NATO-enforced peace plan.

"When I saw NATO troops were coming, I told myself I would be coming home one day," says Elez's teenage daughter, Vlora.

The clan waited five days after NATO began deploying its forces before sending three men to survey the properties. Though their houses and stables were totally destroyed and much of their livestock is gone, the lure of the land is too strong. Three days later, the families pile into two tractor-drawn wagons and join the flood of returning refugees heading for the border.

It takes about five hours to drive the 60 miles to Grecina, an isolated group of farms reached by dirt tracks. At the beginning of the trip, their excitement spills out in greetings to passing cars and people. They wave to German NATO troops guarding the border and a checkpoint outside Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city.

But their smiles turn to dismay as they confront mile after mile of homes looted and burned by Serbian "ethnic cleansing." Villages and fields, usually alive with people and livestock, tractors and cars, are silent and still largely deserted.

Bittersweet homecoming

Off the main road, the destruction continues. But the families break into cheers at a checkpoint outside a dilapidated store manned by rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Then they are home.

Like most Kosovar Albanians, the clan lives as extended families. Each tractor makes for its own compound, a five-minute walk apart. One is owned by Elez's father, Arif, and is home to three families; the other is shared by Arif's brothers, Miftar and Uka, and is also home to their three sons and their families.

Elez's elder brother, Tafa, walks through the iron gates of their compound and throws them open for the tractor on which his half of the clan rides. Arif tries hard to hold back his tears but cannot. Their wives weep, too, as the children scramble off the wagon and bolt for the orchard.

Arif quickly composes himself. He waves off a question about where the families will live until at least one room in each house is fixed up to shelter them while they rebuild the rest. "It's not important for me because we have survived," he says.

Not total ruin

As the women begin unloading the tractor, the men take stock. Two cows that died from starvation have already been removed, but their stench lies thick in the courtyard. Still, some of their 20 cows have been found wandering in the fields, meaning fresh milk for the children. Their car is a burned-out hulk, and Tafa estimates the losses in looted and destroyed belongings - televisions, sewing machines, refrigerators, and furniture - at about $90,000, a fortune in what is the poorest part of Yugoslavia. He hopes international reconstruction assistance comes quickly.

In a ravine at the foot of their land, a concrete irrigation tank is thick with green slime, but Tafa is relieved. It is full of water, showing it has not been damaged and he will be able to plant corn with which to feed the cows this winter.

They return to the orchard, where Elez and Tafa dig up a wooden box they buried containing critical documents, some gold jewelry, and years of photographs. Unfortunately, water has condensed inside the plastic bag in which it was all wrapped. The pictures are ruined, but the documents can be pried apart and dried, including the all-important title to their property.

At the other compound, much the same is going on. Miftar pokes with a stick through a carpet of shattered roofing tiles and ashes in the remains of a shed, not looking for anything in particular.

"I kept vegetables and fruits in one side, cows in the other," he tells a visitor. "Yes, I worry about money [to rebuild]. But I have my family, and I have come home and I'm happy."

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