Pristina, 15 January 2008 – In the northern part of the ethnically divided city Mitrovica, 38 km north of Kosovo capital Pristina, 60 people have occupied an abandoned two-floor building. Among them is Alexander Damianovic, of Serbian ethnic origin, who arrived in Mitrovica in 2001 after transiting through various places in former Yugoslavia.Damianovic, a refugee of the Serbo-Croatian conflict in 1995, lives with his daughter in a single room in the building, which is now used by local authorities and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as a collective shelter. His two other children were sent to a centre in Kraljevo in southern Serbia that looks after children from families that vanished during the wars, or who cannot provide for them.
Damianovic’s mentally sick wife lives in his building, separately in the space once reserved for the receptionist; efforts to send her to a mental asylum failed. She became ill after she lost her father and brother during the war in 1998.
“After seven months we received this box of provisions as support from the Red Cross,” Damianovic said, pointing to a small box on the floor. “We are supposed to receive 50 euros per month as social support, but the last four months we did not get even this. Just the medicines I need cost 30 euros a month.”
Three kilometres east of Mitrovica, in an area called The First Tunnel, the Albanian family of the Jassaris has occupied an abandoned and semi-demolished Serbian house.
“The municipality promised us an apartment eight years ago but we never got it,” Debran Jassari said. “We live nine of us in two rooms, and receive help only from people who sometimes bring food or flour.” Fortunately, he says, no claim has been made by anyone to repossess the property.
Another Albanian, Mustaf Istrefi, lives with another nine members of his family in Stari Trg, two kilometres east of The First Tunnel. Unemployment in the village, which hosts one of the richest mines in Europe, with rich veins of lead, zinc, cadmium, gold and silver, is above 95 percent. The mine has been inactive since 1999.
Istrefi struggles to raise his seven children on 100 euros he makes every month. He manages to send them to school, but without support he cannot offer them more.
His eldest son was admitted by the university in Pristina in the faculty of economics, but the family could not support him. So he had to stay home and join the unemployed mass.
Istrefi’s family lives in an apartment previously hosting Serbian miners. He is afraid that if the mine is activated, or the owner returns, they might have to go.
There are thousands in Kosovo like Damianovic, Jassari and Istrefi.
Most remain socially excluded, and trapped in an environment of political turmoil that has provided no stable social structures. They have become a secondary, and neglected, social problem.
The focus is all on the status of Kosovo. The Albanian majority in Kosovo, a United Nations protectorate since the end of the 1998-99 war, wants full independence from Serbia, which is offering only broad autonomy.
The population movement caused by ethnic repression during the last period of Yugoslavia’s dissolution has pushed these people into areas in and around Kosovo. Serbs are concentrated in the northern part of Kosovo and in enclaves scattered around the region. Albanian refugees have mostly migrated abroad or moved into Pristina.
“Official sources in Serbia, and in Montenegro, put the figure of internally displaced persons at more than 200,000,” according to the Public Information Unit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kosovo. “This figure includes Serbs, Montenegrins, Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptian, Muslim, Bosniak, Gorani and others (but excludes Albanian).”
An additional 21,000 (including all communities) internally displaced persons are estimated to have moved within Kosovo. In some way, displacement and exclusion have affected people of all ethnic origins.
The fate of Damianovic, Jassari and Istrefi is not inevitable.
“Kosovo has received 30 million euros per year since 1999 for constructing alternative housing,” Touncho Zourlev, a Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) enforcement officer told IPS. “This is a lot of money. But who can tell what happened with it.” About an equal amount for social support is reported to have been sent into Kosovo from Belgrade, supposedly to take care of ethnic Serbs.
KPA is the international body responsible for reclaiming and administering property on behalf of internally displaced persons and refugees. KPA eviction officials admit that they often have to remove families from reclaimed properties who were found to be living below subsistence levels. Still, they implement decisions only in the south since the police refuse them effective assistance in areas inhabited by Serbs.
“It is really brutal especially when you arrive in the winter and the children are sleeping, many times six or seven together,” KPA official Charlotte Ajavon told IPS.
Municipalities are meant to care for these people but KPA officials admit that they mostly disregard their obligations towards the poor and the homeless, leaving them alone to cope with social exclusion and lack of support.