KRAGUJECAC, Serbia - When in the summer of 1999 over 400 Kosovo residents were forced to abandon their homes in the Serbian province in the wake of the NATO bombing, they found shelter in a collective center in Raca Kragujevacka. They were convinced that this small town in central Serbia would be their home for just a short while. Today, almost four years later, the same families--ethnic Albanians, Muslims, Serbs, Roma, Macedonians--are still there. Only there are more of them now because several babies have been born. They all agree that in order to live together, a community must be composed of good, honest people.
Raca Kragujevacka, a small town of about 4,000, where everybody knows everybody else, demonstrates that people of different nationalities and faiths can live together in peace.
People living at the Karadjordje refugee center openly tell of how things were when they began their new life in Raca. The old building where they were to stay had been abandoned and empty for years and lacked running water, electricity, and sewerage. Today, primarily thanks to humanitarian organizations such as Danish People's Aid and the Switzerland-based SDC, each family has its own room, and shares several bathrooms with the others, as well as a kitchen, where one meal is cooked for all the residents. Social and employment training programs are organized in the center, and there is also day care for pre-schoolers. Each family was also given a small patch of land as a vegetable garden, some tools and seeds, so they wouldn't have to depend on the occasional humanitarian aid.
Center manager Zvonko Zivanovic stresses the importance of social programs. He says they helped restore the displaced people's self- confidence and hope, and helped many get over the trauma of having to leave their homes. He proudly mentions the center's drama group, which brings together people of all ages. The group has put on many public performances in Raca and several other Serbian towns, delighting their audience. The group also enjoys the support of DPA and a Belgrade theater director is working with the actors.
"I've been with these people from the beginning of 1999, and seen with my own eyes the smiles gradually returning to their faces. It is a special experience and the best reward one can get," he says.
Rifat Mehaj, a Rom from Klina, arrived in the center immediately after the 1999 war. His large family didn't speak a word of Serbian, but today they speak it fluently. Every day he sits in his garden with Savo Ulamovic, a Serb who fled from Djakovica, who he met at the center. Both Rifat and Savo believe their future is in Kosovo, where they were born and where their hearts and roots are, as they say.
Mehaj is very grateful to all "the good people" who offered security to his family in Raca, but says he often dreams of his home town and strongly desires to return. He was told by new arrivals that his home had been burned to the ground, but he still sees it in his dreams as it used to be--surrounded by a garden and fruit trees.
"I used to have a nice home and a piece of land. We lived modestly and always worked hard because we wanted our children to live better. I lost everything in an instant, but I'm not going to reconcile myself with that. There is hope. This is why I would like to return to my home town, even at the cost of having to starts from scratch. But as time goes by this seems less and less likely," Mehaj says. He explains that he will be ready to go back only once he is certain his family will be safe in Kosovo.
Although satisfied with the accommodation, he says he feels bad because he doesn't have a job and his children need food, school books, and clothes. For the time being Mehaj doesn't have either the money or courage to leave the center and start life on his own. He is facing a big dilemma, because he never ceases to mention going back to Kosovo and the risk that might carry. His wife, Djulsaja, albeit nostalgic, would prefer to stay at the center, because she wants their children to finish school in peace, without fear, and become independent. The younger children are in day care, which operates in two shifts, and their eldest son goes to school.
She says the inhabitants of Raca are "good and peaceful people," and adds that if there isn't a chance of a safe return to Kosovo, she would prefer to stay in town and build a new home there. She admits to longing to see her home, relatives and friends, who were also forced to abandon their homes. Yet though she believes "there is no place like a home," she puts the safety of her family first.
Agim Ceku, a Kosovo Albanian, says he left his native village of Trebovic shortly before the 1999 NATO bombing campaign because he didn't want to participate in the fighting. With his eight-member family he reached the Raca center, a town he had never heard of before. Searching for refuge, he never thought he would spend years in a collective shelter. Thanks to DPA, his wife and three of his eldest children have finished various training courses. The oldest son, Visar, is now a welder, and his wife and two daughters completed a sewing and hair styling course. The three younger children go to school in Raca. Agim hasn't got a job, but is happy to participate in the drama group, and says he has discovered a new love of acting. He is proud of his success on stage and the applause his newly discovered acting talent has earned him.
Agim says that in their first days of exile, nationality and faith were important matters at the center even though its residents had been brought together by a common plight. However, as time passed it gradually lost importance and now they celebrate birthdays and patron saints days together. Obviously happy with the atmosphere, he stresses that the center residents have earned the trust of the local population as well. Asked about his plans, he says his village was not burned down and his home, albeit stripped of everything, is still waiting for him, although he has no intention of returning without firm guarantees.
Radovan and Ruzica Popovic, from a village near Istok, arrived in Raca with their four children from Kragujevac, where they were initially sheltered in a school. Ruzica says that period was the worst in her life and doesn't like to speak of it. Instead, she proudly points to her children, especially her youngest son who is four and was only three months old when they were forced to leave their home in Kosovo. She remembers her former life and the village of Kos, aware that her family is now much worse off and this is why she would like to return.
"I keep thinking of returning, although our village was completely destroyed, but only if our safety is guaranteed," says Ruzica. She adds that the children would like to stay in Raca, because they have new friends and like the place. She says her children are good pupils even though they have a hard time finding a place to study since the family has only one room. She is aware that the center is not a true home, but fears how her children would react to a new change of environment and uncertainty in Kosovo.
The center's residents say that on the whole, they are pleased with the living conditions. Despite much good will and readiness to help, however, donations and humanitarian aid are decreasing. They need more food, medicine, vitamins, footwear and clothes and, of course, a home of their own. But they obviously will have to think twice before deciding to return to Kosovo.
by Olivera Tomic
(This article is part of the Reporting on Diversity project jointly run by the Beta News Agency and Media Diversity Institute from London. The project is supported by the European Union.)
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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