B92/AFP, October 31, 2002
Kosovo Serb refugees despair of seeing home
MATARUSKA BANJA -- Not far from the homeland in Kosovo that they left three years ago under pressure from ethnic Albanian guerrillas, thousands of Serbs fear they will never see their homes again.
In the pretty spa of Mataruska Banja, near the southern Serbian town of Kraljevo, a former hospital was transformed into a "collective centre," sheltering dozens of Serb families who fled Kosovo following the withdrawal of Belgrade troops in 1999.
The building hosts more than 200 men, women and children who, ever since they fled their homes in the western Kosovo region of Pec, have known only idleness, but also feel totally abandoned.
"We are getting some supplies from the international community. Nothing else. It's worse here than in prison. There, the inmates have at least three meals per day!" complained Milan, a man in his thirties.
Full of anger and impatience, Milan vows to find something to do, to try to make money to survive. But he said he was happy to find a week-long job at the construction site, nothing longer.
"I spend my time biting my nails," he said.
Kosovo Serbs, most without work, gathered in a big park in the spa, enjoying the mild sun in late October. Two men were playing chess, hidden in the shadow of a big tree.
"It's only when the weather is nice that we can enjoy playing chess. Inside, there is only one big room where everyone gathers, it's impossible to concentrate," one of the players, Radovan, said.
This old man already fears the coming winter.
"It's terrible in winter. We see only each other, each curled into his own glum thoughts. Not to mention hygiene standards! Only seven bathrooms for all of us. It's been like this for three years now," he complained.
Radovan remembered how he and his neighbours had left their homes in Klina, east of Pec, leaving their belongings, land and animals, as quickly as they could, although Yugoslav troops had still been present in the area that summer of 1999.
The clashes between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Belgrade troops ended in June, in the aftermath of the NATO bombing campaign on Yugoslavia. But Yugoslav troops had to withdraw from the Albanian-dominated Kosovo.
"They did not have means to protect us any more. The soldiers were only thinking of leaving. And the Kosovo Liberation Army fighters were everywhere, approaching," Radovan said.
Several families have briefly returned to Klina to check what happened with their property.
"My farm was ransacked. Nothing was left. My four hectares of land are now being cultivated by Albanian farmers. Fortunately, I have my property papers, so one day, I will be able to get compensation for what I have lost: a lifetime work," said 53-year-old farmer Miroslav.
This father of three said living conditions for his family were "deplorable."
"Thank God my children go to school. I have to hope there is still hope for them," Miroslav said.
And those who live in this collective centre complained that no state official has visited them so far.
"It was the same during the times of Milosevic as it is now with Kostunica! They act as if we do not exist!" said Branka, a young woman from Klina.
"My family lived there, in Kosovo, for centuries, what can we do here?" she asked.
For them, the first step for a return to Kosovo would be a change of the attitude of the UN administration, which has run the southern Yugoslav province since 1999, towards ethnic Albanians.
"As long as they are supported as they are now, we Serbs will never be able to return," one of the Kosovo Serb refugees insisted.
More than 200,000 Serbs fled Kosovo in 1999 for other parts of Serbia or neighbouring Montenegro, fearing revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians after Belgrade's troops pulled out.
The Serbs complain that both the UN and NATO peacekeepers have failed to protect their communities from ethnic Albanian reprisals or create the security conditions necessary for the return of refugees.