RFERL Romany Exiles Returning To Kosovo
RADIO FREE EUROPE RADIO LIBERTY (UNITED STATES)
Serbia: Romany Exiles Returning To Kosovo
By Jolyon Naegele
Six Albanian-speaking Roma families returned to their hometown in Kosovo
this week after nearly three years in exile in Serbia in what is expected to
be the start of a large-scale return of displaced Roma and Serbs. RFE/RL
correspondent Jolyon Naegele spoke to the returnees and their Albanian
neighbors, as well as to United Nations officials about the difficulties
Vushtrri/Vucitrn, Kosovo; 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Six families of Ashkali,
or Albanian-speaking Roma, returned to their hometown in Kosovo on 17 April
under a United Nations-sponsored program. The return came almost a year
later than originally planned. Their ethnic Albanian neighbors have greeted
the return but are warning that not every former resident will be welcome.
Before the war three years ago, some 130 Ashkali families lived in the
municipality of Vushtrri/Vucitrn. Around 100 families eventually fled. The
Roma were widely viewed by Kosovo's Albanians as helping the Serbs and of
looting Albanian homes.
The UN mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK, said "the return of refugees and
displaced persons to their homes in Kosovo is an important step in leaving
behind the legacy of war and conflict" and "a major step in Kosovo's journey
to joining a free and democratic Europe."
The UN administration's civilian-affairs officer for Vushtrri/Vucitrn is Guy
Houdegbe, a native of the West African state of Benin, who has five years'
experience in looking after Rwandan refugees in Congo. He said four Ashkali
families briefly visited Vushtrri last year under UN auspices to see what
was left of their homes, many of which had been damaged or destroyed in
their absence or else occupied by displaced Albanians. At the time, the
local authorities were unable to provide satisfactory answers to basic
questions about housing, reconstruction, employment, and security.
Houdegbe said the UN stepped in by rebuilding the displaced-Albanians'
houses so they could return home and free up the properties belonging to the
"Before the six families returned, we went several times to Vojvodina in
Serbia to meet them to explain the situation to them that they need to
return because now their houses are empty. And those who want the
reconstruction activities -- I think we also have an NGO which agrees to
rebuild the 10 houses for them. Last week, I was in Vojvodina. I talked to
them and initially 18 families were able to return and we sent a list to the
municipality. The municipality cleared the list and 17 were allowed,"
They had until this week to return if they want to be involved in the
reconstruction or to recover their vacant homes. But those who came were not
those whom the UN had expected to come. A second group now says it too wants
to return within two weeks, so the deadline has been extended. The deadline
is to ensure that the returnees are present during the reconstruction
"Those who want their houses to be reconstructed -- they need to be here to
collect the materials, to follow the reconstruction process on the ground,"
The leader of the six families, Rama Sherrifi, said his people are satisfied
to be home and will be even more satisfied when all their people return. "If
the Albanian community has nothing against the return of other members of
the Ashkali community, I'm sure this action will continue."
Sherrifi said his house survived the past three years intact but that its
contents were stolen. And he also said there is plenty of enthusiasm among
the Ashkali to return, provided the first six families encounter no
problems. Sherifi said he has been promised his old job back as a mechanic
at the Kosovo Electric works.
Sherrifi said the Ahskali left because of threats by members of what he
calls "Albanian paramilitary forces" -- the since-disbanded Kosovo
Liberation Army, or UCK. But he added that the Albanian civilian community
did not threaten the Ashkali.
Conditions in Novi Sad were, as Sherrifi put it, "tragic." He said, "We had
to pay rent; we didn't get enough assistance; there was ethnic
discrimination." Their children were barred from attending school in Novi
Ramiz Elishe, also an Ashkali, is hosting all 16 returnees in his home
across the street from the returnees' homes and said he is happy to host any
A KFOR patrol has set up a monitoring post on the corner in an apparent bid
to ensure there will be no unrest.
Across the street, the young owner of a kiosk selling UCK and Albanian
patriotic memorabilia -- including clocks, patches, and flags -- said he has
no problem with the return of most former residents.
"All Ashkalis who didn't do anything bad during the war are welcome to
return -- old men, women and children. But there is no place here for those
who committed crimes during the war. All the neighbors know. Some of my
cousins know. All of Kosovo knows about that. I saw with my own eyes [that]
they burned houses. They stole. They cooperated with the Serbs."
But Houdegbe interrupted the kiosk owner to say that those who are alleged
to have committed crimes will not be allowed to return for the time being.
"Before we allow the people to come, we clear the list with the
municipality. They simply go through the names and say 'yes, yes,' before we
allow people to come. None of the Ahskali who [committed] crimes during the
war will return now."
The municipality's commissioner for minorities, Tafil Hyseni, a member of
President Ibrahim Rugova's moderate Democratic League of Kosovo, or LDK,
said he does not foresee any difficulties in resettling the Ashkali or in
future, the Serbs.
"Serbs who are not incriminated in the war should return to their homes.
Kosovo is open today for everyone. Some lost their houses, others are still
occupied [by displaced Albanians], but the municipal assembly is fully aware
of this situation. In the end, everyone has understood that Kosovo doesn't
want to live in violence, following a decade of Milosevic's totalitarian
regime. Not only Albanians suffered, all ethnic groups suffered," Hyseni
No Serbs are currently working within the municipality administration.
Nelly Sabarthes of France is the UN's local community officer in
Vushtrri/Vucitrn and oversees six Serb-inhabited villages in the district,
totaling some 4,500 out of what she said was a prewar population of between
6,000 and 7,000 Serbs. She said that, although large returns of Serb
residents are likely in the coming months, the main focus initially will be
on improving the living conditions of Serbs currently living in the
municipality. She said it may take "months or maybe another year" until
those conditions for the return of Serbs are established in the
municipality, although she added that it is possible that matters will be
"This is very ambiguous because UN agencies and international organizations,
including UNMIK, are talking about returns for the year 2002," Sabarthes
Sabarthes said there is a growing awareness within the local Serbian
community that things have changed and that the Serbs "will have to make a
step forward if they want to stay here." Yet she says the Serbs don't know
which direction to go since they are waiting for some guidelines from
Belgrade. She said they still feel as if they are living in a part of