Gjilan, 14 February 2008 – The 9-year-old ethnic Albanian boy screamed until he was red in the face, pounding his fists on the door of a small concrete house that only minutes before he had called home. “This is my house! Let me in!” he cried, before collapsing outside the front door freshly sealed with yellow police tape.The swift eviction of the boy’s family was the work of Toncho Zourlev, a.k.a. “the Enforcer,” a no-nonsense Bulgarian who leads an eviction squad set up by the United Nations in Kosovo in 2006 to restore properties to their rightful owners. To him, the family was simply squatting illegally in a Serbian house.

As a locksmith changed the lock on the front door, the family hastily wrapped belongings and carried them to the street: a rusty cabinet, a teddy bear, six pairs of shoes, a kitchen table and chairs. The women and children huddled in the rain. A tea kettle, still warm, sat steaming on the stove inside.

“We have nowhere to go, we have no money, what will we do?” pleaded Qamile Nuhiu, the 42-year-old mother of the boy, Valon, one of her five children.

Her husband, she said, was unemployed. The family has been living in abandoned Serbian homes in this poor agricultural town about 60 kilometers, or 35 miles, southeast of Pristina since Serbs clashed with ethnic Albanians in their hometown of Presevo – which lies outside Kosovo in Serbia proper – after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign to halt Slobodan Milosevic’s repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians.

With Kosovo poised to declare independence from Serbia in coming days – the culmination of a long and violent struggle over who controls and owns this land – the property restitution effort has taken on added importance.

Many inhabitants on either side of Kosovo’s ethnic divide – now about 95 percent Albanian in what was the heartland of Serbia’s medieval empire – can tell tales of property theft and other misdeeds stretching back decades, if not centuries. The UN is trying to right the most recent of past wrongs – those committed during the chaos of civil war of 1998 to ’99, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians and Serbs fled their homes in this poor, landlocked territory, only to seize a house belonging to somebody else.

The attempt to reverse these misdeeds underlines the challenge facing conflict zones around the world, where ensuring the right of returning minorities to take possession of their homes is deemed essential to reconstruction in multiethnic countries ranging from Rwanda to Iraq.

In the case of Kosovo, fewer than 18,000 of the 250,000 Serbs, Roma and others displaced since 1999 have returned, according to Human Rights Watch, which cites the inability of refugees to return home as a major obstacle to normalcy.

As the Nuhiu family scrabbled to assemble its worldly possessions, Sami Miftari, 31, an ethnic Albanian neighbor freshly evicted from the house next door, put forward another view: that in Kosovo, where even government sources put unemployment at 60 percent and monthly earnings average about $240, illegal squatting can be the only way to survive. “Kicking us out is not justice,” he said. “It is revenge.”

Zourlev insisted he was simply restoring law and order to a territory riven by bloody disputes over land. “Putting families onto the street is not fun. But if Kosovo wants to be an independent country, people have to learn to respect the law. Otherwise, this place will continue to be the wild west.”

Lars Olsen, a Norwegian and spokesman for the UN property agency, noted that many of the property claims come from Serbs. Few, however, are willing to return to Kosovo – particularly now that independence seems imminent. They want to establish legal ownership of their former homes so they can earn rental income or sell them.

Since 2001, the Kosovo Property Agency and its predecessor, the UN’s Housing and Property Directorate, have fielded 29,000 residential property claims, about 90 percent of them filed by Serbs whose property is being illegally occupied by ethnic Albanians. Of those, 17,500 properties have been restored to their rightful owners, Olsen said, while 2,500 cases have been dismissed.

The KPA, whose mandate will continue under European Union auspices after the UN leaves, expects to settle another 40,000 cases by 2010.

Zourlev, who sets out on evictions accompanied by a locksmith, several burly movers, a translator and armed local police officers, notes that the operations can be fraught with danger, including resistance by illegal tenants hoarding AK-47s and shotguns. Things can get especially tense, he said, when the evictees are former soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the separatist guerilla group that fought the Serbs.

He recalls that during a recent eviction in Obilic, a poor industrial area outside Pristina, a former KLA soldier summoned his friends. Before long, the eviction team found themselves surrounded; Zourlev says a policeman wedged himself in front of the apartment door until reinforcements came.

In other cases, the illegal inhabitants flee before Zourlev and his team arrive, gutting the premises and illegally seizing everything from sofas to refrigerators that Serbs left behind.

“People have war wounds, their neighbors or brothers were killed during the war, so they become angry,” he said. “They think they have the right to do what they are doing. But they don’t.”

Such is the tension in some Serbian enclaves in Kosovo, such as Mitrovica, that the local police refuse to cooperate, and Zourlev and his team are forced to cancel evictions. The former prime minister of Kosovo, Agim Ceku, recently appeared in a television commercial exhorting the local ethnic Albanian authorities to cooperate.

“With independence coming, people are tense and local police are refusing to cooperate, it is frustrating because we can’t do our job,” Olsen said.

UN officials say the property settlement system in Kosovo offers a model for other civil war-torn areas because the justice is fair and swift. While in most countries, property and land disputes are usually settled in local courts – a process that can drag on for years – the UN has set up a special commission of judges for Kosovo, who rule on the claims.

After a claim has been made, a team of investigators at KPA headquarters in Pristina, made up of both ethnic Albanians and Serbs, conducts interviews, scours local property registries and verifies contracts to determine a property’s legal ownership.

Once a ruling has been made, the illegal occupants are given 30 days to leave. If the owner does not wish to live there, the KPA puts the property under its administration and collects rent on the owner’s behalf.

“If we had to go through the courts, it would take 20 years to bring these cases to justice,” Olsen said.

Sejdi Haxholli, an ethnic Albanian police officer overseeing evictions, said it was emotionally wrenching to help evict his own people. “This is the hard part of the job. I know these people and everyone knows me,” he said. “Now I have to kick them out, women and children. But I am helping to bring peace and lawfulness to my country. That is what helps me to do the job.”

Not everyone believes justice is being done. Suezana Borzanovic, 50, a Serbian factory worker, fled Pristina during the NATO bombing raids in 1999 and returned three years later to discover that an ethnic Albanian taxi driver had illegally occupied her apartment, and was renting it out. She filed a property claim with KPA in April 2002, who reinstated her ownership of the apartment eight months later. She said that when she finally returned, the apartment was in disarray, with the furniture and windows broken.

Today, she said, she is the only Serb living among ethnic Albanian families in what was once a Serb-dominated building. She said she would never recognize an independent Kosovo. For her, Pristina will always be “Serbia.”

“I don’t believe justice was done because I lost out on two years worth of rent,” she said on a recent day at a Serbian community center, where she volunteers.

She added: “I say hello and goodbye to my Albanian neighbors. I have not had any problems. But if they brought me a cake I would refuse. You never know, it could be poisoned.”

The KPA is determined to continue its work. Olsen says the agency is gearing up to evict ethnic Albanians who have illegally seized Serbian land, including those who have built cemeteries for fallen KLA soldiers on such land. That is likely to ignite tensions, but, he added, “we will do what we have to do.”

Author: Dan Bilefsky

Source: International Herald Tribune