PRIZREN, 15 January (BETA) -- The first impression of a visitor entering the village of Sredska, near Prizren, is one of complete desolation: silence, burned roofless houses with tall grass growing around them, apples and pears in the orchards that nobody has picked, broken front doors and window panes, stray dogs roaming through the main street, the odd bird, an elementary school surrounded by barbed wire. Until 1999, around 100 Serbs inhabited the village, before leaving after the war in Kosovo, when the Kosovo Force (KFOR) troops entered the province.
After the 1999 war an estimated 300,000 Serbs fled Kosovo. Only about one hundred have returned in any organized way. There is no data on the number of Serbs who have returned on their own to tried their luck.
Sredska has a long way to go before things return to normal. Today, the village has only seven residents. The first to return, early in August 2002, was Zoran Stevanovic, who lives alone in a house on the edge of Sredska. He says he couldn't endure refugee life and moves around normally, although he knows he could be attacked. "I walked all the way from Musnikovo," he says. This is a neighbouring village, peopled mostly by Bosnians and Serbs, and the last stop of the convoy that brought them back. "Nobody tried to stop me. Not even the German KFOR soldiers stationed near the razed Culture Centre who are guarding Sredska. Now I am here and am not leaving," he says.
Stevanovic says he contacted Bosnian friends in neighbouring villages through acquaintances he does not want to name, and even spoke to several Albanians and Turks from Prizren as well. They came to visit him and bid him welcome. "Many of them call on me daily and bring food, and I am very grateful to them," he says. He adds that on one occasion he went without a KFOR escort to his native Prizren. First he went to the Church of St. George and lit candles for his living and dead relatives, and then he walked through town to where he has a house and an apartment. Several Albanians he does not know now occupy his apartment.
"I met an Albanian, a good friend of mine. We greeted each other warmly. I asked him how he was doing and he told me that his son had been killed. I asked him who killed him--ours or his people. He told me it was ours. I expressed my condolences to him and he invited me over for a drink. We had some drinks together, agreed to see each other again, and parted as we used to before the war," Stevanovic says.
Ljilja Cukalovic is also a returned exile. She returned to her home late in September 2002 in the company of her uncle Mladen and his wife, Nedeljka. They came back from Smederevo, eastern Serbia, where they spent three years in a refugee facility. UNHCR representatives escorted them to the village, and they now live in her father's house. "Uncle Mladen, like the entire family, could not take it any more, living far from Sredska and Prizren. My husband and children are still in Smederevo, but they will return because their hearts are here. For three years we longed to see our native village. I lost 25 kilograms," says Ljilja. "I am glad I am back, although our house and shop in Prizren were taken and my father's home here looted and destroyed. Fortunately, it was not burned, and we can live in it. At least the roof does not leak. My uncle's house which is near here, is more or less in the same condition," she says.
Since returning she has been cleaning and tidying up, but much needs to be done to bring back a semblance of order to her home. The worst part is not having doors and window panes, and the weather is getting colder so sometimes they can't sleep because of the cold. When evening comes, the village becomes dead silent. There aren't any street lights, except around the school where German KFOR soldiers are stationed to guard the returnees. Wild boars, foxes and other wild animals roam nearby in search of food. Ljilja jokes that they bring them "news" since they don't have a radio or TV.
Mobile telephones are useless in Sredska and in order to make a call they have to travel 15 kilometers to Prevalac on Mt. Sar. When they need staples they go to Musnikovo, a nearby ethnically mixed village where in addition to Bosnians there are about 70 Serbs. "Until recently there was not a single returnee in the village. Then Ratomir Softic came back. Zoran Stevanovic, who was the first to return, lives on the outskirts of the village. [Then] Cedo Dusmanovic and his sister Mila came back after him. We often visit each other and talk about our plight. Except in the village and in Musnikovo we dare not move about without an escort, and here we are very lonely," says Ljilja. She feels bad about being separated from her children, but is aware that Sredska is in no condition to accommodate them. She hopes the day is near when they will finally be able to return. "Meanwhile, we are doing our best to organize life here, hoping that others will join us and that the future will be better for all of us," she says.
"When UNHCR representatives brought us here they promised a great deal. A woman called Suzana, who works for the organization, brought us mattresses and a stove, but they never returned afterward. We don't know what the future holds in store. A KFOR checkpoint that used to stand at the entrance to the village has been removed and anybody can now enter Sredska. But the situation appears to have improved, because nobody is bothering us. This is encouraging because we want to live here; this is why we have returned. We lived well with all our neighbors, Albanian and otherwise, before the war. We didn't harm anybody," says Mladen.
His wife, Nedeljka, believes that people are responsible for their actions. "Those who have committed crimes will not return, because they know they are guilty. But I don't understand why innocent people are not coming back. They live in collective shelters, some rent flats, they don't work and have no income, and some of them receive 40 percent of the salaries they used to receive in Kosovo. It is hard to live in such circumstances. You don't know who to pity more--the elderly who suffer, or the young people who don't know what to do with themselves. We aren't having the time of our life here, you yourself can see everything is destroyed, we do not have a door. But at least we are in our house, on our land. It's better here than in the shelter," she says.
The Cukalovics add that they need practically everything-furniture, hygiene products, food. In order to receive pensions and salaries paid by the state of Serbia, they have to walk 20 kilometers to Strpci, a large Serb enclave. "Here most of all we need people, peace and safety. If more of our fellow villagers don't return, we'll not be able to make it here; we'll have to flee again or to accept such a fate," Ljilja adds.
Her family has a house and a shop in Prizren. Since they mostly lived in Sredska, they rented the shop to an Albanian friend who opened a car wash there. Ljilja does not want to disclose his name since he could have problems. She adds that he had promised to guard their house as well, at least until some of them returned to the town. But despite this, an Albanian family forced its way into the house and is now living there. "I don't know what people are living there. Whenever I phone, a man answers. He doesn't want to talk, he just says something in Albanian and hangs up. I plan to get in touch with him to learn what is happening with our house, but I haven't succeeded yet. I will file a request with international bodies to have my house returned, and we'll see what happens," says Ljilja Cukalovic.
Ratomir Softic was given construction material by a friend and is now remodeling his house. Two Bosniaks from the neighbouring village are helping him, but are afraid of publicity. "Please don't take pictures of us or release our names because we could have trouble," says one, carefully, so that Softic doesn't hear him. "I returned to where I have lived for 62 years. I am remodeling my home and expect my family to join me. There are problems. Even when the days are cold, I still cook in the open, but that is much better than going from one collective shelter to another," says Ratomir.
"We waited a long time for the state to help us. When we realised something was wrong we decided to do something ourselves. The most important thing is that the ice has been broken; everything else will be much easier. So far, seven of us have returned, and as many as 80 people have promised to return next spring," Softic says. And quickly adds: "I wish the spring would come sooner."
Translated by Haris Velijevic.
The news items posted on TOL Wire have been edited by TOL staff with only minor changes to the original content. Larger additions are marked as follows: [TOL editor's note].
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