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Winter In Exile: Kosovo Minorities Prepare For Season In Collective Centers

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By Matthew Volz
Buric Vasilije met us as we walked into the collective center, eager for word about what was happening in Kosovo. Vasilije, a Serb whose home was in the western part of the province, has been transplanted to the Montenegrin city of Berane. He is pessimistic about being able to return home at all, and is preparing for the winter with his family in a small hut. His bitterness is evident.

"It's politics," he says. "We're not politicians. As things look now, we're not going home."

Vasilije is one of thousands of Kosovars who have had to accept that they will be spending this winter away from home, not knowing whether they will ever be able to return. Time weighs heavily on their hands; they have little to do and they struggle with their dependence on others for food and shelter.

Most are ethnic Serbs and Roma (gypsies). Earlier this year, it was the ethnic Albanian population that was forced out of Kosovo, hundreds of thousands fleeing for Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. After the NATO air strikes ended this summer, the ethnic Albanians returned, and the threat of retribution at their hands caused many Serbs and Roma to leave. Reports of murder, kidnapping and harassment have resulted in a continuing exodus of minorities. Those who remain in the province live in fear and isolation.

Many Serbs and Roma fled to Montenegro, most ending up in collective centers, abandoned buildings that can shelter dozens to hundreds at a time. Mercy Corps is doing what it can for these refugees, distributing bread and cleaning supplies, and would like to take a larger role in the management of Montenegrin collective centers.

A Monkish Life

Vasilije lives in a collective center near Djurdjevi Stupovi, a Serbian Orthodox monastery on the outskirts of Berane. It is home to 59 Serbian refugees from Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia. There are small huts built for each family on the land, and the monks let the refugees use one of their buildings for cooking and cleaning.

Vasilije tells us a building with showers and toilets should be completed soon, and electricity has been promised.

"All of us are prepared to spend the winter here, unless something terrible happens," he says.

The monks of the monastery came in buses and trucks during the crisis in Kosovo, hauling load after load of people from the province and into Montenegro. They made ten trips back and forth, risking their own safety. When they finished, the monks had evacuated 180 Serbs. The monks still go back to the province, bringing food and supplies to the Serbs who stayed.

Vasilije says living with the monks has changed their lives. Collective center inhabitants now attend church regularly; they hadn't earlier. Before they left Kosovo, 80% of the inhabitants were not baptized. Now everyone is. Vasilije welcomes the changes, calling it a cultural reawakening.

"People forgot about religion during communism," he says. "Now we are learning new customs. It's a different way of life."

There are over 2,000 Serb refugees in collective centers throughout Montenegro. The living conditions vary with the building. One collective center in Rozaje is an apartment building in the center of town, housing eight families in separate apartments, each with heating and electricity. Others are the most rudimentary buildings without running water or plumbing facilities. But no matter what the conditions are, the situation is the same: all wait for news from home, and wonder where they will end up.

The Roma Dilemma

The Roma, a small minority in Kosovo before the war, are seen by many Albanians as having collaborated with Serbs before and during the conflict that led to the NATO air strikes, and are considered enemies by the ethnic Albanians.

According to a Montenegrin non-governmental organization called Anima, there are as many as 11,000 Kosovo Roma refugees living in Montenegro, most living in collective centers. A survey conducted by Anima found that most refugees planned on settling permanently in Montenegro.

Likolaj Imer says the risks are too great to return to his home in the western part of the province, a sentiment shared by most at the Kristal collective center, a former glass factory where 180 Roma live.

"We hear on a daily basis that they are killing people over there," he says. "I'm not returning."

The Roma living in the Montenegrin collective centers have accepted that they will have to spend the winter in their present locations; the falling snow tells them to settle in. There is often no electricity, heat or running water, the cramped conditions in small family cubicles make for noise around the clock, and the lack of hygienic care products and cleaning products make the collective centers potential breeding grounds for diseases.

Still, the Roma living in the collective centers are trying to make the best of it. An example is Kristal's school. Imer is a teacher at the school, located in the rear of the old factory. He teaches some 53 schoolchildren, in rooms well equipped with furniture, books, games and writing materials. Imer says there is good attendance at the school, practically nobody skips class.

"Generally, the kids are interested in learning," he says. "They have a problem with clothing, though. It's not very warm in here."

Further down the road from Kristal, is another, smaller collective center that is made up of two houses. Because they are private houses, the 49 Roma living there are not officially considered collective center inhabitants, meaning food is not directly distributed to them. The families here go to the Red Cross daily for their ration of fresh food, and Mercy Corps bread is delivered to their doorstep daily. The desperate conditions are wearing on them. Two residents say that a woman recently tried to kill herself by drinking acid.

They echo Imer's thoughts that they will never be able to return to Kosovo, and realize the vulnerable position they are in.

"We have nowhere to go, we have nothing there," says Iseni Ajdin. "Everything is destroyed and burned. We are in your hands. Do whatever you want."

Another Roma collective center is located in Berane, in a former department store called Jasikovac. This collective center houses about 250 Roma. Wooden cubicles have been set up for the families here, but this is a recent development. A month ago, everybody lived in the open. There aren't enough cubicles for all of the families, and some have to live in the narrow corridor between them.

It is here that Mercy Corps will pilot its Roma Health and Hygiene Awareness Program for the next three months. During that time, a Mercy Corps doctor and social worker will find out the needs of the inhabitants, then hold training sessions on preventative health care and personal and environmental hygiene practices. The goal of the program is to have collective center inhabitants create a clean living environment for themselves, and help them prevent illnesses and diseases conducive to such life. After the pilot program at Jasikovac, Mercy Corps hopes to spread the program to collective centers throughout northern Montenegro.

Most collective center inhabitants don't know where they will be after this winter, but seem to be in agreement that it won't be Kosovo. Many plan to remain in Montenegro, others are looking for ways out of the Balkans. Imer is one of the latter, but without money or a passport to go.

"I'm thinking about joining my family in Switzerland," says Imer. "I'll try to get out there, but it won't be easy."