REPORT FROM KOSOVSKA KAMENICA
- KOSOVSKA KAMENICA
In September 1999, when one of the saddest and most tragic works
ever published in this region, the book Kosovo Crucified, was
presented, the Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral,
Amfilohije, called the events in Kosovo and Metohija at the close
of the 20th century shameful and an embarrassment to the honor of
In the middle of April of this year, UMCOR, a non-governmental
organization, informed us that a plan was in preparation to
return Serbs to Kosovo and asked if we would help. Consequently,
they acquainted us with the intended place of return, a village
near Kosovska Kamenica called Lestar.
This village was selected because it was ethnically mixed prior
to the conflict. During the conflict both Albanian and Serbian
houses were destroyed. The idea was to begin the restoration of
the village on an equal basis as far as the number of houses was
concerned. In addition, we were told that the Albanians
themselves wanted their Serb neighbors, those who did not
participate in persecutions, to return. The cautious
administrators, I later learned, asked them to confirm this in
writing. And the Albanians did.
According to the plan of work we received, we needed to contact
refugees from a predetermined list to see whether they wished to
return. If the answer was affirmative, we were to give them a
date for a group visit to their village. Also foreseen was a
joint meeting of the villagers, both Albanians and Serbs. At the
meeting, it would be confirmed that neither side had problems
with the return of those Serbs present during the time of the
Upon informing Bishop Artemije of this proposition, we received
his blessings to continue with our work because we are an office
for displaced persons and concerned with the possibility of
There was discussion regarding a visit in the last week of May.
Even though we informed everyone concerned and secured their
consent to visit Lestar under the auspices of UNHCR and under the
protection of KFOR and UNMIK, this schedule was finally rejected.
The reason was the fear of the administrator of possible
incidents due to the redeployment of the Yugoslav Army in Sector
B of the Ground Safety Zone.
The visit finally took place from June 13 to June 15. I was
accompanied by an UMCOR representative named Mary. We traveled in
an automobile with Danish license plates. We were scheduled to
meet with the refugees from Lestar at noon on the administrative
border with Kosovo and Metohija at the checkpoint near Bujanovac.
This checkpoint is better known as Gate 5. The nine interested
Lestar natives were scheduled to travel there by bus and to
transfer into an UNHCR vehicle at that point.
Our trip from Belgrade to Bujanovac passed without problems. From
Bujanovac we headed toward Gnjilane. It was interesting for me to
pass through areas which very recently were dangerous for
travelers. But, except for one huge burnt tree trunk, there was
nothing which one would even associate with the previous
situation. The only strange thing to me was that upon payment of
duties (so-called customs fees) there was not a kiosk or other
place for payment. However, just a little bit further forward,
the land was being cleared for an enormous complex. Judging from
appearances, this location was planned as a terminal where
accompanying buildings would be raised.
Thus, we entered Kosovo without any problems or stalling (Mary
took care of this, using her feminine charm to overtake the
column and quickly arrive at the ramp). Waiting already on the
Kosovo side were representatives of all structures of the
administration from the Gnjilane region. Shortly after mutual
introductions took place, the bus with the Lestar natives also
arrived. In it were two grandmothers /respectful term for elderly
woman/, two elderly men, two older middle-aged men (close to the
age of 60) and three men younger than 40. They transferred to
the bus with the UNHCR insignia. A column was formed with
American combat vehicles, one in front and one in back. We set
out for Kosovska Kamenica.
Kosovska Kamenica - After approximately a half-hour drive, we
arrive in a small town. The vehicles park next to the UNMIK
center for Kosovska Kamenica. We get out of the vehicles and set
out on foot toward the center of the village, some 50 meters from
the parking place. I am surprised by the fact that we are not
protected by either troops or policemen as we walk to a building
in the village center which, by all appearances, is the so-called
We enter the building and go to the first floor where the
cafeteria for employees in the center is located. We are given
refreshing drinks, and sandwiches are also offered. These are
followed by bananas, peaches, apples. After this refreshment,
having become somewhat acquainted with both our hosts and the
visitors, we set out to tour Lestar.
We set out on the trip in ten-odd vehicles of various origin -
UNMIK, UNHCR, KFOR, OSCE - while some of us ride in unmarked
vehicles as well. In the vehicles, in addition to the visiting
refugees are senior representatives of the aforementioned
organizations in Kamenica municipality. We pass by the church,
which is undamaged and I see people in the churchyard. There are
a few Serb-owned houses and businesses here. The signs on them
are in Serbian. Nothing is damaged.
We leave the small town and continue toward Lestar. The road
passes through hilly areas with scattered plateaus. Passing by
the Albanian villages, I observe that at the entrance to each
there is a monument to the Kosovo Liberation Army. They are very
similar - several steps leading to a base on which there is a
pillar adorned on the sides by wings, similar to those of
butterflies, inscribed with the names of those killed. We also
run across some sort of mine, apparently a non-mineral one. I
have the impression that no work is going on in it or that the
level of activity is at a minimum. There are signs here and in
the distance some churches and monasteries can be seen. I
remember one unusual name. The monastery of Tamnica /dungeon/.
Since this is not a trip devoted to monasteries, I have to
content myself with what I can see from the vehicle. I am pleased
that I do not see signs of outside damage.
We cross a concrete bridge without a fence. This is one of the
(Socialist?) characteristics of Kosovo - something built but no
thought devoted to completing it and also making it safe.
Stop - I see a car in a stream (which probably flows into the
Kriva River in Kosovska Kamenica). We stop the vehicles and park
on the shores of the stream. The car being washed in the stream
cannot get out because of us but we have no intention of stopping
there for any length of time.
Nearby there is a two-story house and not far away is another
one-story building with a vaulted entrance. Both are demolished,
without doors or windows, without furniture. Everything is
overgrown with high grass and weeds. We learn that this property
formerly belonged to one of the younger men from our group, the
one with red hair, whose father was slaughtered by the Albanians.
The one-story building was a sawmill with all the necessary
machines. When we approach more closely, we can see the places
where the machines once stood. Of the machines themselves there
is not a trace.
A little further, some sort of shouting can be heard. Some man is
gesticulating and shouting. I can't understand what he is saying.
Therefore I conclude he must be Albanian. With him are several
children. He is approached by a tall man in a German uniform whom
I met in Kamenica. I am told he is a colonel by rank. He is
joined by several of our people and I am among them. The man who
was originally shouting continues to do so but switches to
German. I am surprised by the fact that he knew we would be
accompanied by a German colonel and is shouting in his language.
In a pleasant baritone, the colonel asks him what is going on.
Waving his hands excitedly, the man explains the suffering they
endured at the hands of the Serbs and that they do not want them
to return. As confirmation of the fact that he is telling the
truth, he calls his father as a witness. As the elderly man
approaches, the colonel asks him whether he has seen everything
the son is talking about. It turns out he was in Germany at the
time. His father says in Serbian how masked Serbs mistreated
everyone, swearing at the children and describes the fear they
endured. Upon hearing this, the son shouts at him to speak in
Albanian. The old man is a little confused by this request but
obeys the son. Then the son translates his father's testimony
from Albanian to the colonel. More and more children are
gathering. The refugees all observe and comment on this. To
engage children for such occasions is a typical Albanian tactic.
The colonel listens to the story of the old man as translated by
the son and orders the continuation of our trip toward Lestar.
Later I learned that this village is called Strezovce. The
red-haired owner of the sawmill was the only Serb with a family
in the village.
Lestar - Travelling along neglected and difficult rural mountain
roads we arrive in Lestar. One after another, we encounter
properties with completely destroyed houses. Mary takes a video
camera and films this. A few of us, led by Grandmother Savka, who
is over 80 years old, climb the steep slopes to the village while
the rest take an easier path. We inspect and film each house.
Since the entire group has one video camera at its disposal (I
can't remember who it was that had the photo camera), many of the
owners join us to make sure that their houses are also filmed.
The structure of the village indicates that it was established
long ago. Because on each property there is not only one house
with its surrounding buildings but always several houses.
Grandmother Savka tells us, for example, that there were three
houses on her property: one belonging to her husband, a second
belonging to her father-in-law and a third belonging to her son.
The situation is similar with the other properties, all eighteen
of them. Very few of them have only one house. Even though there
was a well next to almost every house which was now dry, the
settlement also had a water system which was filled from a
180,000 liter water tank. This, too, was destroyed. All the
electrical poles were cut down. The fences around the houses were
ruined; the beautiful flower gardens for which the south of
Serbia is renowned were overgrown in high grass and weeds.
Scattered and rusting around the houses were articles which the
looters had not taken with them.
The German colonel was very dissatisfied. The houses and
properties were exceptionally scattered; the terrain was
difficult and hilly. He said that providing security for people
under these conditions was difficult, almost impossible. If his
job is to protect the Serbs, then he wants to ensure that not one
single Serb is killed.
The two grandmothers, Savka and her friend, say that their only
wish is to return to their houses, to clear the graves of their
loved ones and to die here themselves. Other Lestar Serbs
visiting their properties for the first time in two years wanted
to have their pictures taken next to their houses, even in cases
where the houses were destroyed. So they could show what they
left behind. Because it is obvious despite the destruction that
their properties were huge.
They explain to me that the district of Lestar consists of five
settlements, two of which are Serb: the settlement of Lestar and
the settlement of Mladenovica. I am unsuccessful in learning how
things were before or what the structure of the other settlements
During the course of our tour of the properties, we arrive at a
spring under a thick hornbeam tree. The water is cold and
refreshing to drink. Everyone drinks from the spring and praises
its pure and natural waters which is more and more difficult to
find, especially in the West, as they admit themselves.
After reforming our convoy, we return. Along the way, the refugee
villagers are transported to their relatives' houses where they
will spend the night.
Gnjilane - We continue on and arrive in Gnjilane. Among the
representatives from the office in Gnjilane, our group also
includes Brian Ericson, an American. I did not find out his
family name until he gave me his email address and thus had no
opportunity to ask him if he was perhaps a descendant of Eric the
Red. He is a very interesting man with an apparent flair for
languages. He speaks as much as he knows of the Serbian language
quite decently and is also learning Albanian and manages to
communicate with them, too.
After a light dinner, we retire for the night. We sleep in a new
house owned by Albanians and leased by UMCOR officials. It is
very nice and clean.
According to our schedule, the next day was to start fairly early
so that we could meet with representatives from the office as
well as the Church People's Council of Gnjilane. The reason for
the meeting with the latter is a newspaper which they are to
publish with the financial assistance of UMCOR. At 2:00 p.m. a
meeting with the Lestar natives was to take place in Kamenica; it
was to be preceded by a meeting with the non-governmental
organization Sveti Nikola /St. Nicholas/ in Kamenica.
After a cup of weak Western-style coffee, we set out for the
office. We are accompanied by Jon, who is from Holland. All of us
are somewhat more warmly dressed because of the rain and the hail
which had fallen that morning. Jon wears a jacket in the color of
the Dutch representation. After introductions with the team at
the local office, Mary, Brian and I go to the Church People's
Council. They are located close to the Gnjilane church. The last
time I was here was five years ago, when Bishop Artemije brought
computers for the church administration.
We find the Council convened but in the middle of another
previously scheduled meeting. We therefore agree to meet again
following our return from Kamenica. We then go to the
administration headquarters for the Gnjilane region. We leave our
identification cards at the entrance and receive visitors'
badges. We visit the local administrator for health because the
one with whom Brian wanted to meet was not here. I would guess
that the administrator is probably from Pakistan to judge from
his colleague who was visiting and who munched on a cookie during
the course of our conversation. He informed us that measures were
being carried out to improve health protection; however, a
drastic reduction in the number of employees would have to be
implemented because everything was overstaffed. A new job in the
health field will be available only in a few rare specializations
Our itinerary next takes us meet Gwen - pronounced "guen" in
English and "guin" in Irish - who is responsible for social
welfare. She greets us hospitably and readily shares with us the
information and instruction which we request. Her office is
shared by a Serbian translator. On the board listing the names of
employees, his name appears at the end. He tells our
English-speaking hosts that his family name will be very
difficult for them to pronounce. Not having spoken a word thus
far, I read off the name unhesitatingly - Cuckic - and say
nothing more. He looks at me in surprise, unable to believe that
it was that easy. When I continue in Serbian, it becomes clear to
him why pronouncing his family name was not difficult for me.
Gwen/Gwin returns with a heap of papers which she has copied for
us. As we are talking, a kitten strolls into the office. As if in
greeting, the kitten proceeds to play with the handbags of all
the ladies present, jumps into their laps and cuddles up them. It
finds Brian's backpack especially fascinating. After tiring
itself out from play, the kitten leaves to curl up somewhere and
take a nap.
We bid farewell to Gwen/Gwin and depart.
As we return to the office, we pass quite a few troops. In
Gnjilane there are many troops of all kinds. There are also quite
a few military bases: American, Russian and Ukrainian. In a cross
street I see troops at both the entrance and the exit to the
streets. In the street are Serb peasants who brought their
produce here for sale. Now it is clear to me when this morning,
as I observed the street from the office, I saw a bus pass
accompanied by two American combat vehicles. The bus brought
these peasants to the market and to allow them to purchase
something in Gnjilane.
Like troops in any other army, the soldiers keeping watch look
for a shady spot because, despite the cold morning, the sun is
out again. And they are in full gear. In the streets of Gnjilane
there are quite a few patrols but also fortifications with troops
in full gear.
Return to Kosovska Kamenica - It is getting close to noon when we
have a meeting scheduled in Kamenica with the local
non-governmental organization Sv. Nikola. We get in a car with
Mary and she drives us to Kamenica. The office is located on the
ground floor of the parochial hall. We are welcomed by a younger
man. In the office is a conference table, a wardrobe and a table
with a computer which appeared to be well-equipped. During the
course of our conversation, I discover I was right with regard to
the hardware and I am also happy to learn that Bane is a man who
knows how to use it exceptionally well. He has an excellent and
well-maintained database for the Kamenica region; he is very
active in researching ways to help the remaining Serbs as well as
in finding ways to help refugees to return. During the
conversation we are also joined by the local priest, Father
Nikola. He wants to record the condition of buildings in the
field with a video camera. Mary and Brian take on the
responsibility of enabling him to visit her twice a week and to
film matters of interest. Before leaving, I accompany Father
Nikola to the church. It was built around 1860 and illustrated
around 1905. There is no electricity and I am unable to see even
the clearest frescoes. However, we depart very satisfied with
both our reception and the work of this association.
Meeting - We were told there would be a meeting at 2 p.m. in the
UNMIK center which we visited yesterday. The meeting was
scheduled to begin in the large conference room on the ground
floor. To the right of the entrance is a slightly raised podium
and on it a long table. Several people are sitting at the table.
There are also several tables lined up vertically with respect to
the table on the podium. Sitting at one of these tables are
mainly representatives of international organizations responsible
for administration - UNMIK, KFOR, UNHCR, a young English
translator, and some other people. At the foot of these tables
and several feet away from it, a series of chairs are lined up
against the wall parallel to the table on the podium. These
chairs are for the Serbs from Lestar.
The rest of us are seated along the adjacent wall parallel to the
table with international representatives. Viewed from our
perspective, the Serbs from Lestar look like a larger group of
indicted persons. They sit quietly, not speaking with anyone.
Even though the meeting was scheduled for 2 p.m. it somehow could
not get under way. I was surprised by the delay; it seemed as if
the participants had adopted Balkan customs rather rapidly.
Officials were continuously entering and leaving the conference
room, bringing and taking away some sort of papers. It was as if
the materials for the meeting had not been prepared.
From the neighboring room, the sound of children's voices as if
some sort of rehearsal or event was going on. In the pauses
between songs there was a great deal of commotion. I am not
certain if it was a coincidence that our meeting was scheduled at
the same time as a children's event. However, what was certain
was that it influenced the level of concentration at the meeting
and none of those present did anything to reduce the level of
noise. Perhaps UNMIK had adjusted to the Balkan system of being
perturbed by nothing?
After more than a half-an-hour delay, the meeting was opened by
the Russian Dmitri, the head of the UNMIK administration in
Kamenica. I concluded that UNMIK was indeed slowly acclimating
itself to the Balkan mentality for he said not a word of apology
due to the delay nor offered anything by way of explanation as to
why it occurred. There was no comment regarding this by other
UNMIK speakers who followed, either.
Speeches and presentations were translated into Albanian and
Serbian. First an Albanian translates, then a Serb. This order
was probably established on the basis of numeric representation.
It is emphasized that the level of hate in Lestar must be
reduced, that members of the two nations need to stop hating each
other. None of those who had come to see their houses had asked
who had burned them down. Task groups of Albanians and Serbs put
together lists for the return of the endangered who wish to
return. The municipal administration did its part by verifying
ownership status and after the meeting, a social welfare
assessment of the endangered would be conducted.
In order to ensure that the meeting would be efficient and to
avoid having everyone say whatever came to mind, the Serbs chose
one man, Nikola, to speak on behalf of all of them. Nikola
attended all meetings and negotiations from the very beginning
and was thoroughly familiar with all the issues involved. After a
few ceremonial words of thanks and everything that goes with
that, we need to see how the project of returns will unfold.
The project itself was presented by a Spanish woman because the
project would be implemented under the supervision and according
to the plan of the Spanish organization MPDL. She speaks
poignantly with an emotion-laden voice about how the money for
this project was collected from all citizens of the European
Union. Therefore, the grateful refugees should do everything
possible to rebuild their houses which they will then be unable
to sell for the next 20 years. This condition is one of the
fundamental elements of the contract which will be signed with
every one of the refugees whose suitability for return is
established and confirmed. She explains that due to the roughness
of the terrain and the scattered houses, the construction
materials will be deposited in one place from which the refugees
will be responsible for transporting it to their property by
whatever means they see fit. The work involved will be carried
out by the refugees themselves, who will assist each other.
Despite all her efforts, she was unable to cover every single
element of interest to the Serbs and they proceeded to ask her
the following questions:
What is to be done with the demolished infrastructure? During the
course of the past two years, no one has done any work on the
roads. Everything is overgrown with weeds. The electrical poles
are cut down. The wells are neglected and plugged up. The water
reservoir is destroyed. Therefore, additional assistance is
necessary in order to bring this all into working condition in
order to enable normal work on the construction of new houses.
Where will the refugees live until their homes are rebuilt? Will
security be provided for returnees while work on the
reconstruction of the village is being carried out?
What about freedom of movement?
Who all will be able to return? In addition to construction
workers, someone will need to come to cook for them and so on?
What about the livestock which was destroyed? What about
destroyed agricultural machinery?
What about war criminals?
How exactly are old men and women returnees supposed to assist in
the construction of houses?
What about supplying the houses with essential furniture and
How will the returnees be able to earn a living? Will they be
able to work in the companies where they worked prior to their
Nikola, the representative of the Serbs, sums up the Serb
requests by reiterating that they need to have houses ready to
move in prior to returning.
The Spanish representative replies that her organization can only
provide the cost of the construction materials but not the wages
for labor. Only the elderly will be provided with funds to pay
workers who will assist them in construction.
UNHCR takes on the responsibility to provide tents for the
housing of the refugees until they build their houses. They are
welcome to bring their wives with them to cook for them, as well
as other family members who are able to help them with
There is also a degree of willingness to help with repairing
roads to the village but the situation with respect to water and
electricity remains completely unclear.
War criminals, Serbs and Albanians alike, are being pursued and
will continue to be pursued by UNMIK.
The Serbs emphasize that they have left their hate behind and
that they sincerely hope that the Albanians have forgotten
Even though the entire meeting was translated into Albanian, the
Albanians did not make a single comment. They did not comment
with regard to this statement by the Serbs, either.
The meeting concluded with the promise that, upon completing a
questionnaire, the next Monday, June 18, a joint session of
international representatives and representatives of both
communities would be held. At that point the decision would be
made as to what to do next.
After the meeting ended, we are approached by the Serbs. They say
that during the meeting the Albanians looked at them in such a
way that they were concerned as to what would happen to them if
they should return. I go to Colonel Albrecht and tell him of the
Serbs' concerns. He responds that the Albanians told him that
three younger Serbs took part in violence during the conflict. I
respond that it is interesting that they are targeting the
younger men who, as returnees, would be willing to invest their
work and energies and remain in their village. Besides, they also
know who burned down and their destroyed their houses, murdered
their loved ones. They are prepared to give testimony regarding
these events. And they certainly wouldn't dare do this if they
themselves had taken part in persecution of the other ethnic
One other thing is notable: there was no meeting with the
neighboring Albanians. We learned that the meeting with the
Albanians took place that morning prior to our meeting. This
represents yet another unfulfilled promise.
Thus this visit, announced as a turning point, was turned into a
sad visit to destroyed homes and a meeting with many unclarified
points and unanswered questions.
I especially remember the response of Dmitri, the Russian head of
the UNMIK administration, to the plea of one Serb to reinforce
controls on the cutting down of forests because the forest on his
land was almost completely cut down. Dmitri replied that not one
tree could be cut down without the license of the forest
inspector nor is construction material sold without information
regarding its origin. He firmly insisted that not one piece of
construction material was sold without this information.
From this it is apparent that Dmitri, although young, had lived
long enough under socialism to accept all convincing arguments
regarding a brighter future. For that is the only justification
possible for him to be able to speak with such self-confidence
regarding the efficacy of the inspector in preventing the banned
cutting down of forests.
As we were leaving the conference room, the event next to us also
concluded. I approached the young man who was translating from
Serbian into English and vice-versa the entire time and
congratulated him on a job well done under difficult
circumstances. He was pleased to receive even this form of
recognition for his work and asked me how I liked Kamenica. He
added that life there was peaceful and normal.
The next day we returned to Belgrade.
by Branislav Skrobonja
Glas Kosova i Metohije/Voice of Kosovo and Metohija
NOTE: I was unable to complete this report immediately upon my
return to Belgrade as I left immediately on another official
trip. Upon my return, I read the following news:
"Zoran Dekic killed two nights ago near Kamenica
"Gnjilane, June 21 (Tanjug-AFP) - A Serb man was killed last
night by a bullet near Kamenica in southeastern Kosovo while in
an automobile with four other people, Agence France Presse
reported today, citing UNMIK police sources.
"Zoran Dekic, age 32, was in an automobile which came under fire
last night in the village of Grizime near Kamenica, Gary Carrell,
the UNMIK police chief for the Gnjilane region, informed AFP."
So much for a peaceful and secure life in Kosovska Kamenica.