A Long Journey Home – the Return of Serbs to Prizren

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Twenty years after the conflict in Kosovo, Prizren is the only city South of the Ibar river where the return of Serbs has been recorded. Those few Serbs who live in this city say that the key pillars for sustainable return are: employment, education, healthcare, the return of usurped property and security. The problem is how to reach them and how much the authorities are ready to deal with these problems.

By: Fejzo Kaplani, Prizren

SRPSKI: Dugo putovanje kući – povratak Srba u Prizren

SHQIP: Udhëtim i gjatë në shtëpi – kthimi i serbëve në Prizren

Potkaljaja is a neighbourhood of the city on Bistrica river, which offers the most beautiful view of the center of Prizren. Many houses in this settlement, located on a hill just above the center, are specific to their architecture, but also to the white facades that make them different from other houses. White color is a reliable sign that some of the few Prizren Serbs live in them.

This quarter was burnt down during riots in March 2004. Many houses were later reconstructed. In one of these live Ljubiša and Snežana Jeftić, a couple who, after several years of living as displaced persons in Serbia, decided to return to their home.

I have adapted to these circumstances and, somehow, I am much more fond of these people here, than those in Kraljevo, where I used to reside, because, with these people, I can quickly find a common language, we have common topics, above all, topics from the past, when we used to meet and work together, and when we lived under the same circumstances”, says Ljubiša.

Ljubiša is former director of the trade company “Progres” from Prizren, today he is retired and spends his spare time mainly socializing with a small number of Serb neighbours, mostly retirees.

In Prizren, there are about twenty Serb returnees, mostly elderly people. Ljubiša does not believe in any major return, especially not when it comes to young people, because, as he says, more than twenty years have passed since the war and many life circumstances have changed.

Ljubisa Jeftić

“I am skeptical when it comes to the return of young people, because they have adapted to the places they inhabited, they are tied to schools, they have girlfriends, many have founded families, they are employed and, therefore, there are very small chances for their return” says Ljubiša.

The words of this Prizrenian may be best describing the current situation in the city regarding returnees.

The first refugee wave was initiated in 1999, and then in 2004, after the March riots, when many Serb houses were burnt down. Some even two times.

That is exactly what happened to the 77-year-old Svetlana Nikolić, who, despite all this, lives alone in her restored home. She says she feels safe, moves around the city and talks to people without any problems.

I have no problems around the city. Many people know me, and even many of them recognize me by my maiden last name – Čučanović,” says Svetlana.

She adds that her biggest problem is the poverty she is facing. She had worked in Printeks for 37 years, and now she gets about 90 euros (retirement pension) from Serbia. She says that this is not enough for a normal life.

“I cover all the expenses with that money: electricity, water, waste, tax and what is left of it? It doesn’t remain enough even for medicines, let alone for other supplies,” said Svetlana, adding that she does not get any aid in food, firewood or anything else.

Return in multiethnic environments

Prizren is a town on the Bistrica River located in the South of Metohija in the Prizren basin. It is a city with a large number of settlements and numerous cultural and historical monuments and religious sites. According to the 1981 census, the total number of inhabitants in Prizren municipality was around 134 000, of which 11 650 were Serbs.

Until June 1999, in the territory of the Prizren municipality, according to the 1991 census, there were slightly more than 10 000 Serbs. The 2011 Kosovo census showed all the extent and size of the exodus. Out of the 177 000 inhabitants of the municipality, there are only 237 Serbs.

It is no better in the rest of Kosovo, either. After the 1999 conflict, according to UNHCR data, often mentioned by the official Pristina, about 72 000 Serbs, not counting about 50 000 Bosniaks and about 10 000 Roma and members of other communities, left Kosovo. On the other hand, representatives of the institutions of the Republic of Serbia often point out the data that more than 220 000 people have left Kosovo.

According to the data of the Ministry for Communities and Return, around 6 800 persons have returned to Kosovo since 2004. After the war, thanks to, first of all, international institutions and foreign donors, a number of projects were launched in Kosovo aimed at facilitating the return of displaced persons. The realization of such projects was often hampered by numerous circumstances.

Economic opportunities, usurped assets, security incidents, and, first and foremost, the lack of readiness of local communities to receive returnees are only part of the obstacles that hinder the implementation of the process and the realization of the return program. Each municipality is faced with specifics that influence the return process to a lesser or greater extent.

According to their experience so far, returnees have generally decided to return to either multiethnic, or purely Serbian environments. The return was much harder, or it was almost non-existent, in those areas with the majority Albanian population. Representatives of Kosovo institutions often cite Prizren as an example of a successfully organized return.

Thanks to foreign donors and realized programs, thanks to the support provided by the local self-government, many houses and church buildings have been restored. However, if judged by the number of those who returned, it is difficult to rate the return to this city as successful.

Except when during the celebration of important religious holidays dozens of present and former inhabitants of Prizren come and gather and one can hear the bells of the St. George’s Cathedral Church.

Officials of the institutions in the municipality of Prizren, primarily from the Office for Communities and Return, have already started developing strategic programs for return in several phases. Very cautiously, the first return project in the municipality of Prizren was realized in Gornje Selo in 2002, followed by projects in the city itself.

They were initially implemented within the “Go and See” program at the locations where the return was planned. After the Municipal Strategy for Communities and Return 2012-2015, the “Municipal Strategy for Communities and Returns 2016-2020” is in force today, for the care of displaced persons and their safe return.

Igbala Rama-Fazli, Coordinator of the Office for Communities and Return at the Prizren Municipality, points out that the implementation of the “REK Project” for the sustainability and integration of refugees in the city area, that is, in the Serbian neighbourhood Potkaljaja in the center of Prizren, was launched in 2002, in cooperation with the “Danish Refugee Council”, supported by the funds of the Embassy of the Great Britain.

Igbala Rama

The project lasted until 2018. “International organizations involved in the process of returning displaced persons, generally in all locations, apart from those mentioned, are also UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency), OSCE and the Ministry for Communities and Return. In Potkaljaja to this day,” says Rama, “43 family houses for Serbian returnees have been built”.

First returnees

The return of Serbs in Sredačka Župa first started in 2002 in Gornje Selo, when security for Serb returnees was unpredictable. Slobodan Vučković from Gornje Selo was the first returnee in Župa. He returned from Serbia in early 2002.

“To tell you honestly, I did not find peace there, because this place dragged me in, and I was the first one to return.. I stayed more often in Brezovica, Štrpce and with the escort of German KFOR I entered my burned house. After its renovation, I brought my wife,” says Vučković. He adds that he did not have any problems with the Bosniak neighbours, he moves freely around Prizren and the surrounding villages.

Vučković says that he maintains the St. George’s church daily, and he also watches over the Serbian cemetery. He rings the church bell every Sunday and on Orthodox holidays, especially for Đurđevdan (St. George’s Day), when the largest number of Serbs gather here.

Meanwhile, in the village of Živinjane, in Sredačka Župa, there is a five-member family of Tihomir Stojanović, who returned here ten years ago.

His wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, his granddaughter and him are examples of successful returnees. Tihomir says he survived because he was a locksmith, and he also worked on his agricultural estate.

Tihomir Stojanović

He recommends to his compatriots “to listen to their heart and to try out his recipe”. “If each of the displaced persons would come, see and decide to stay, decide that there is nothing they should be scared of, except that, of course, one has to work. Because there is nothing without work, like everywhere else, after all. “

I tell them to come and personally make sure everything is in order and follow my path,” says Tihomir, and continues: “Every day I go to Župa and Prizren. I work with everyone and I have no problems. I am personally pleased with the work I do, as well as with the staff of the “Office for the Return”.

The Municipality of Prizren, until today, has built about ten houses in this village. After Gornje Selo in Sredačka Župa, the village of Novake was the second environment in which the return of Serb refugees was planned. In this village, 43 destroyed family houses were restored.

The Novake village is about ten kilometers from Prizren, on the road to Suva Reka. The first Serb returnees arrived in this village in March 2003.

Official of the Office for Communities and Return in Prizren Municipality, Spasa Andrijević, who lives in this village, says that the circumstances for the sustainability of returnees in urban areas are much more difficult than in the rural ones.

“The advantages in rural areas are reflected in self-employment through the development of small business activities, cultivation of plant crops, production  of meat and dairy products for covering personal needs and the handling of small craft activities. While in urban areas, it is much more difficult to find sources and generate income for the sustainability of returnees,” says Andrijević.

Today in Novake, he points out, live about fifteen Serbs who have some kind of family business and sell their products to the local population.

A similar situation exists in the village of Vrbičane. The “Association of Vrbičans”, headed by Velimir Spasić, encourages the residents of this village for their return, and organizes frequent visits. In addition to the village, regular visits are also paid to the Orthodox Seminary of Prizren, the Holy Archangels and the city cemetery. According to his data, a total of 29 910 people were evicted from the Prizren municipality after the conflict, about a half of which were Serbs (15 028 persons).

Velimir Spasić

“We started with the project of building a village church on the foundations of the old, demolished “Holy Trinity” church, which, I hope, will be successfully completed with the funds of the Government of Serbia and the Municipality of Prizren,” Spasić says.

Our interlocutors point out that employment, education of children and inadequate health care greatly affect the sustainability and survival of returnees. Not knowing the Albanian language is another problem that makes everyday communication difficult, returnees say.

About ten Serbs live in Drajčići, a small village located on the Šar mountain. Twelve family houses have been built so far, not only for the Serbian, but also for the Bosniak community, some of which have only been adapted. One group of Serbs never moved away from their village.

They have overcome all post-war difficulties. A village church “St. Nikola” also operates in the village, whose bells, thanks to the young Dejan Simić, ring to Orthodox believers. It gets especially lively in the summer, when many come to visit their homeland. Zlatko Cvetković lives alone in a house built by donor funds for returnees.

Zlatko Cvetković

“I was born here and I feel like being at home, completely safe and I never encountered any provocation, from anyone. I move freely around Prizren, surrounding villages, shops and catering facilities. Often, Serbian public media report incorrectly regarding our security,” says Cvetković.

Our interlocutor says that one of the biggest problems faced by returnees is of an economic nature, because most of them are unemployed.

According to him, in this sense, the support of the institutions of the Republic of Serbia is lacking: “There is poor assistance, once a year with some cans and hygienic means,” says Zlatko, who goes by the nickname “Rudar”. As we learned from the municipal officials, there are now seven more people in the “Returns List”, waiting to be provided with basic conditions for their stay.

Nadežda Ristić

At the Ristić family, we met Nadežda, a seventy-three-year-old woman busily preparing meals next to a “Smederevac” stove. Her son Vladimir is visiting her. A few days ago, he came to visit his mother and two brothers, who remained to live here:

“I’m married and I live in Belgrade. Although I am, in a way, attracted by my homeland, I do not think there are adequate conditions here that would give me the opportunity and spur my dream of return,” says this Belgradian.

Ristić family lives in a house that, in addition to their old one, was built with new funds from the German donor organization “ASB”, but they point out that the house was made in poor quality, the insulation is poor, and much is spent on heating. Otherwise, they regularly receive social assistance from the Republic of Serbia, and with their mother’s Kosovo retirement pension they somehow manage to survive.

Meeting of Dojničane returnees with municipal officials

Many of the Serbs here are interested in returning. We have recently become convinced in this, at a meeting they have held with city representatives, UNHCR, and the Office for Returns. Twenty people from Dojničane expressed their wish for a group, organized return, and signed requests in front of these officials. Discussions were held on return conditions in their home village, but they also requested a meeting with locals, their neighbors, from Bosniak villages; Grnčare, Novo Selo and Skrobište, for the purpose of getting their support.

Domačica-Vesna-Spasic-daje-kolač-slavarima-u-Vrbicane

The Head of the Office for Returns, Ajradin Alija, proposed a return in groups of five families. Their return will be supported by “IOM” within the REK, “Sustainable Return and Integration of Displaced Persons in Prizren”.

This project envisages that this office, with the help of its partners (Ministry of Return, Municipality of Prizren, IOM, Danish Refugee Council, domestic and foreign donors) will build family houses, allocate humanitarian packages and provide each returnee with EUR 2,000 for start-ups of family businesses.

Deputy Mayor for Communities of the Municipality of Prizren – Memnuna Ajdini recommended that these Dojničane returnees start returning and solving their problems in an organized manner. She said that the municipality is committed to the return, but that the process has been difficult: “Although minorities have rights that are well defined in all the laws and the Kosovo constitution, unfortunately, they are not implemented in practice.”

Prizren, Photo: Crno beli svet – CBS

Igbala Rama, an Officer at the Office for Communities and Return, says that the return process is supported at the municipal level, as well as from all the international organizations operating in Kosovo.

One of the returnees, a retired professor – Petar Stojković points out that it would be desirable, first of all, to gain trust among neighbours, that is, among the inhabitants of Novo Selo, Grnčar and Skorobište. According to him, their support would be important, primarily to solve common infrastructure.

“Those who were never outside of their house, do not know the power of desire for one’s homeland,” says Professor Stojković. At this meeting, Vladimir Stevanović from Dojničane handed over the list of missing persons from Dojničane to the attendees, including the name of his brother Vlastimir.

Official of the Office for Communities and Return, Igmala Rama, says that there are financial resources for the return to the villages of Dojnice, Vrbičane and Gornja Mahala in Gornje Selo in Župa.

“For the moment, it is important that there are funds and I believe that we will implement this project successfully. This year, 153 requests have been received, which will be considered in 2019 within the existing group, which has just been created for the actual sustainability of returnees,” Rama promised.

This article was created under the project “Development of Investigative Journalism for Journalists Reporting in Serbian Language in Kosovo” implemented by CBS and InTER. This grant is financed by the project ‘Support to the Civil Society in Kosovo’, funded by the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and managed by the Kosovo Civil Society Foundation (KCSF). The content and recommendations made do not represent the official position of the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the Kosovo Foundation for Civil Society (KCSF). The article is the sole responsibility of the author and does not represent the views of CBS and InTER.

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