For Serbs, a slow road back to Kosovo

Six years after the war, only 10 percent have returned to their hometowns, to live side by side with Albanians.

Milorad Pavlovic took only five minutes to make the decision to leave Kosovo in June of 1999 . But it has taken him six years to come back home.

Today, Mr. Pavlovic, his wife, Milorada, and mother, Jelena, are one of just two Serb families who have returned to their homes in the western Kosovo town of Klina.

During that summer of 1999, an estimated 180,000 Serbs like Pavlovic fled Kosovo as NATO troops poured in to the province and 800,000 Albanians returned from their exile. Despite the United Nations' efforts to help Serbs return, fewer than 10 percent have done so.

Klina is a case in point. While 60 percent of the town's properties used to belong to Serbs, Klina today has become an Albanian town. Serbian is no longer heard on the streets and a large mural glorifying the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army adorns the front of the community center.

In the years of their absence, squatters took the Pavlovics' belongings, and today, their apartment walls are still bare. The family sits drinking coffee on a few sparse pieces of furniture. But none of that matters, says Pavlovic.

"We are just glad to be home again," he says. "This is our house and Kosovo is our fatherland. My ancestors have been here for 600 years. Everything I own and everything I am is here, nowhere else."

Before the war, Pavlovic worked as a company driver and claims most of his clients and friends were Albanian. Life was "terribly good" then, he says.

But things are different now.

A dusty, one-street town, Klina suffered significant damage during the war. Despite a building frenzy, its town hall remains a bombed-out shell. But it is the invisible damage that prevents the town from healing. Thousands of Klina Albanians were killed by Serb forces in the conflict and more than 100 people are still missing.

Klina native Seremb Gjergi says that the town's missing Albanians have been a real impediment to the return of Klina's Serbs.

"There are a number of families that have more than one relative missing," says Mr. Gjergi.

"And this is blocking the part of the town that says we must reconcile. When you talk to someone else who has a missing relative they say listen, I'd love to help on reconciliation, but I don't know where my son is. First, I want to know where my son is."

But Gjergi says the Pavlovic's return is a big step. David Hally, an American who works with the UN Office of Returns here, agrees. He says the biggest obstacle to bringing Serbs back to Kosovo is not Serb fear, but Albanian fear. "Albanians were afraid that we weren't just going to bring Serbs back, but that we were going to bring Serbia back to Kosovo," says Mr. Hally. "But when people began to understand the distinction, some of the resistance went down."

This is not the first time the family has tried to come home. In October 2003 they returned to another one of their three properties. When they found a squatter there, they told him he couldstay and were even willing to give him his own room. But within a few hours, crowds gathered around the house and began to throw stones.

"Helicopters were circling overhead and the internationals were urging us to go," says Pavlovic. At first the family refused, but they finally acquiesced when an Italian military commander came to the house to convince them.

In April of this year the Pavlovics' made their second attempt - this time to Klina. So far there have been no problems. As Pavlovic heads out to buy milk, he points to the houses of his former Serb neighbors. While he hopes they will return someday, for now, Pavlovic says he's ready to build a new life with his Albanian neighbors. Fluent in Albanian, he stops to engage an astonished shop boy in conversation. "Many people don't want to talk to us," he says. "But from what I hear, this is normal. The ice has to be broken and this can't happen overnight. We do understand this."

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