Going home again is difficult for Kosovars

The US plans to return Serb refugees to the Osojane valley as early as June.

Little remains of this farming community in northwestern Kosovo. The houses are deserted, the windows smashed, the furnishings scattered or gone. Abandoned stoves sit rusting in the uncut grass. Last year's corn still stands in the fields, weathered gray as barn boards.

The 400 inhabitants, all of them Serbs, fled last June around the time NATO-led troops entered the province. Afterward, ethnic Albanians bent on revenge looted and burned their houses.

For miles along this valley, the view is the same. In two other villages and in the scattered houses in between, no one is left of the Serb families who lived here, farming the rich bottomland.

The United States government hopes to change this. For the past two months it has been working with Serb leaders in Kosovo on a plan to bring Osojane's inhabitants back, perhaps beginning as early as June. If the plan succeeds, it would be the first large organized return of Serbs since NATO-led forces occupied Kosovo 11 months ago. The Americans say it could prepare the way for other displaced Serbs to return to their homes.

But the plan is already running into resistance from people who think it is a bad idea. These include local Albanians, many of whom lost homes and family members in two years of fighting the Serbs. Some Western officials also believe it is too soon to bring Serbs back to Kosovo.

"Our great fear in these situations is always not to provoke a backlash," says Dennis McNamara, Balkan envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "If you get a backlash, you always set things back."

Pressures of warmer weather

The pressure for Serb returns has been mounting as warm weather returns to the Balkans. About half of Kosovo's 200,000 Serbs are thought to have fled the province last year. Most settled in Serbia proper, where they have not been welcome. Many want to go home, and Serb leaders in Kosovo are eager to help them.

"The Serbs are facing a grave situation," says Oliver Ivanovic, a Serb leader in northern Kosovo. "Time is not on our side. We are getting further away from a multi-ethnic Kosovo every day."

The American plan dates to February, when the leader of the Serb Orthodox Church in Kosovo, Bishop Artemije, discussed Serb returns with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Washington. After that meeting, a State Department official who is also a Serb Orthodox priest visited Kosovo. He made a dozen trips through the province and looked at scores of Serb villages.

Osojane stood out for many reasons. One was that the valley makes it easier to protect; there is only one road into and out of the village. But also, local Albanian leaders seemed to welcome the idea. The Americans were especially impressed by the Albanian mayor of the Istok municipality, Januz Januzaj, an intelligent, soft-spoken lawyer who was a respected commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army. In recent months Mr. Januzaj has probably done more than any other Albanian leader in Kosovo to reach out to ethnic minorities. He has gone so far as to visit villages where Gypsies, Slavic Muslims, and even Serbs still live. Many Kosovo politicians would find this unthinkable.

"In principle, I'm for the return of people who haven't committed any crimes," Januzaj says. "They are citizens of Istok, of Kosovo. If they want a future here, they can live here."

Local objections

But when other local people heard about the American plan, their reaction was swift and damning. "The people are completely against it," Januzaj grimaces. "This makes it more difficult for my position and the American position." He says local Albanians might accept Serb returns in "two or four years."

Albanian leaders also have imposed conditions on Serb returns that will be difficult to meet. One is that the Serbs apologize for crimes that Serbs committed against ethnic Albanians. They also want progress on one of the most emotional issues for Kosovo Albanians: the continuing imprisonment of more than 1,000 ethnic Albanians in Serbian jails.

In a few places in Kosovo, Serbs are already coming back on their own. But some Western officials say they are reluctant to encourage them to return to a situation where they need to be protected by armed troops. They say Serbs need enough security to move about safely and to have access to jobs, health care, education, and markets. This is lacking almost everywhere in Kosovo. Even the protection of Serb enclaves sometimes fails; two weeks ago, nine mortar rounds were fired into the Serb enclave of Gorazdevac.

US officials concede that bringing Serbs back to the valley will not be easy and that it may not be altogether safe. "There are risks attached to it," an official says. "But I think they can [return] .... I don't see that the average Albanian is going to object."

For now, political imperatives may be pushing other considerations aside. Serb leaders in Kosovo seem to be competing with each other to see who can bring back more people. The US hopes that the plan to return hundreds to Osojane will help Bishop Artemije and other moderate leaders win support among ordinary Serbs. At the same time, the bishop's rivals, including Mr. Ivanovic, say they have their own plan to bring back as many as 20,000 Serbs.

Recently, Spanish soldiers in the Osojane area have been trying to persuade local Albanians to accept the Serbs back. "They are very afraid, because they think Serb criminals will come here," says 2nd Lt. Jose Ortega, who was patrolling one afternoon in an armored troop carrier. "We're trying to tell them there will be no criminals."

He had already talked to Sabri and Beke Kelmendi, two brothers who have houses on one end of the valley, about three miles from Osojane. Last May, they say, Serbs killed both of their wives and one child in each family. Lately they have been working on their houses, which the Serbs burned. When the Spanish patrol passed, Sabri Kelmendi was replastering an inside wall. His brother's house was beyond repair, and workmen were digging the foundation of a new one.

"If the Serbs come back here, I won't stay," Mr. Kelmendi declared angrily as he paused from his work. "Not one Albanian person will stay here. All the Serbs in this region were paramilitaries. All of them were bandits. It's a bad idea."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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