Who owns what? UN tackles Kosovo housing tangle

Some 20,000 Albanians have moved into displaced Serbs' homes in Pristina, after their own homes were destroyed by the Serbian Army.

From her balcony, Mira Filipovic can see the apartment where she used to live.

That home of 18 years seems a world away, instead of across the road. The ethnic conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo forced her family to flee Kosovo in the summer of 1999, and later she was forced out of the apartment by squatters.

Now Ms. Filipovic lives in a special apartment block for Serbs in this majority-Albanian province. The residence is guarded around the clock by peacekeeping soldiers.

Filipovic's experience illustrates one of Kosovo's biggest post-war tangles: Who owns what? Two years after NATO bombs and UN peacekeepers freed Kosovo from the grip of Slobodan Milosevic's regime, confusion surrounding property rights remains a stumbling block to the province's progress.

During the 1999 conflict, thousands of homes owned by ethnic Albanians were destroyed by the Serbian Army and paramilitary forces. After the war, homeless Albanians flocked to urban areas, doubling the population of cities like Pristina in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Serbs fled Kosovo to escape a wave of revenge attacks, leaving their empty houses behind. Albanians moved in.

On Nov. 17, the people of Kosovo elected their first democratic self-government. While technically still part of Serbia - Yugoslavia's largest republic - Kosovo, will now be governed by its own autonomous structures. Although the new parliament is multiethnic by design, many wonder if Serbs and Albanians will be able to govern together. The rifts separating the two communities are still enormous, and the issue of property remains one of the most divisive.

Under the Milosevic regime, Serbs owned most of the prime real estate in cities like Pristina. To keep Albanians from getting their hands on prestigious downtown residences, the law barred the exchange of properties between the two ethnic groups. Interethnic transactions occurred anyway, complicating matters further because such properties were traded informally, leaving no official, legal trace.

"You have properties that changed hands perhaps three or more times, all before the 1999 conflict even began," says Knut Rosandhaug, who works with the Housing and Property Directorate, an organization set up by the UN to help bring order to the chaos. "Then came the destruction and abandonment of properties and then the squatters."

On a typical evening in front of Filipovic's building, residents gather on benches to socialize. For security reasons, they can not venture beyond the complex's concrete confines, which include one small convenience store and a bar with a pool table in the basement.

During the past two decades, this building was part of the Serbian government's strategy to encourage Serbs to live in Kosovo. Although Kosovo has always played a central role in Serbian history and mythology, Serbs are vastly outnumbered by Albanians here. This building was considered one of Pristina's plum addresses - its boxy apartments bestowed upon deserving Serb professors and doctors. Today, it stands more as a prison for Pristina's last remaining Serbs.

Like Filipovic, most of the Serbs in the building have abandoned their homes to squatters. "I actually gave my squatter a key to my flat because I didn't want him to break down the door," explains Filipovic. "At first, he was very nice and said he would pay me rent. But the second time I saw him, he said: 'I won't pay or move out, and there is no force to kick me out. NATO came here to support Albanians, not Serbs, and there is no one who can help you. I will only move out for 10,000 deutsche marks [$5,000].' "

The sum Filipovic's squatter demands is known in Kosovo parlance as a "de-squatting fee." These days, de-squatting fees are often included in the price of a property, one measure of the magnitude of the problem. There are thought to be up to 20,000 squatters in Pristina alone.

But according to Rosandhaug, evicting them is not that simple. "It's no good just to evict a squatter, if the ground hasn't been prepared," he says. "Because if the person whose apartment it is can't move back in, then a second squatter situation could arise. And if a squatter is angry, he may take the attitude that if he can't live there then nobody can."

At the offices of the Housing and Property Directorate in Pristina, Kosovar Albanian lawyer Shqipe Bajrami helps a client - an Albanian whose house in a nearby village was burned to the ground during the war. Today, he is a legal squatter in one of Pristina's abandoned apartments.

"He has come to reapply for a permit to continue squatting on the abandoned property where he is living," explains Mr. Bajrami. "Before we evict anybody, we examine their case. In his case, the apartment is unclaimed and he has a genuine need. There are many humanitarian cases, and we don't evict anybody without finding them alternative housing."

But according to Bajrami, some are simply taking advantage of the chaos. "You have people who already had their own houses or apartments but who claimed another one and then turned around and rented it to the international community here," she says. "But increasingly, these people realize that they have to release properties that don't belong to them. It's important for the future of Kosovo."

Arber Vllahiu, an ethnic Albanian journalist and Kosovar yuppy, says those exploiting the housing situation make it difficult for everyone.

"When my wife and I were recently looking for an apartment, some of the best places we looked at were former Serb apartments," he says. "But we didn't buy one because, in the end, there are just too many problems associated with them. First you have to find the real owner and then you have to pay off the squatter who considers that he has taken care of the apartment for the last two years."

Because most Serbs whose property is being squatted on have fled Kosovo, the Housing and Property Directorate recently opened three offices in Serbia proper. There, Rosandhaug says, they are expecting up to 75,000 claims to be filed.

FILIPOVIC, whose claim is No. 200, says the hope of regaining control of her apartment and her steady job as a translator with the British KFOR regiment are what keep her in Kosovo.

"I would like to sell my apartment to buy something in Serbia for my father who is old and ill," she says. "But I will stay here as long as possible, because in Serbia I have no job and it is so hard. We have [in Serbia] refugees from Bosnia, Croatia, and now Kosovo - and not even the Serbs from Serbia have jobs."

Yet in the face of all these difficulties, Filipovic says she still can not imagine living anywhere else.

"My heart is in Pristina," she says. "I finished school here, I had my son here. I feel normal here. In Serbia, I have some freedom but I feel like a stranger there, like I don't belong to that people. I will stay here because it is my last wish to once again walk through my city without an escort."

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