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REPORT FROM KOSOVSKA KAMENICA

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  • Snezana Lazovic
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 5, 2001
      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
      Christian Europe.

      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
      visit.

      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
      returns.

      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
      cultural hall.

      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
      is.

      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
      in deficit.

      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
      linens?

      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
      expulsion?

      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
      construction work.

      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
      theirs, too.

      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
      community.

      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.
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