Returning to roots

International | For Kosovars in Gjakova, home is about more than walls and family treasures

Issue: "The first straw," Aug. 28, 1999

in Kosovo - Albanians who fled the Kosovo city of Gjakova (pronounced JACK-u-va) in the spring are coming home to a very different place than the one they left. Marked as a KLA stronghold by the Serbs, the city was singled out for harsh treatment during the war. The 300-year-old commercial district was torched. Homes on every block were burned. Whatever valuables residents did not bury or hide were carted off by retreating Serbs. Cars, televisions, artwork-even family heirlooms-are gone. "They took the family tree from our wall," said Emin Rizvanolli, whose family has lived in Gjakova for more than 500 years. "I can't remember all those names," he said. "They stole our things and our history." Yet, in spite of the destruction and trauma of recent months, the mood in this city of 70,000 in the southwest part of Kosovo is upbeat, even thankful. It is hard to find any critics of NATO's bombing campaign on the streets of Gjakova. Residents greet NATO troops and other westerners with expressions of thanks. One woman, upon being introduced to an American, held her baby son up for a kiss. Like a Wild West boom town, Gjakova these days is an edgy mix of opportunism, newfound freedom, and uncertainty about who is in control. Nike dealer Lala Baruti, one week after returning to find his store windows smashed and shelves picked bare, was selling shoes again. "My store was looted, but I hid most of my inventory where the Serbs couldn't find it," said Mr. Baruti. "Now, I'm back in business, but I'm going to have to find a new supplier-all my shoes came from Belgrade." With the protection of NATO troops known as KFOR (Kosovo Implementation Force), who began moving into the region in July, Kosovo Albanians hope to craft a quasi-independent existence from the Serb-dominated government in Yugoslavia's capital. Since the war's end, Albanians have been eager to return home and get back to work. In June, they ignored warnings about mines and booby traps and left refugee camps to rush back into Kosovo. "This wasn't your typical refugee population," said Danela Owen, an official with the UN World Food Program. "These people weren't going to be permanent refugees. They didn't care if you fed them and gave them shelter in a camp, they were going to go home." Why hurry back to a country that seemed so full of hatred and misery? Because Kosovo, while sharing ethnic roots with neighboring Albania, is a land of milk and honey by comparison. Albania was known as Europe's poorest country during its communist era, while the former Yugoslavia-ruled by communist dictator Marshall Tito but independent from Moscow-was the most prosperous of the Eastern Bloc nations. Kosovo's road system and basic infrastructure are still intact, and many residents live in spacious homes built with low-interest loans during the Tito regime. Kosovars who fled to Albania during the war were surprised at how lawless and derelict it is. They say they now have misgivings about seeking a formal union with the country. Kosovars also worry that Albania's problems could soon take root in Kosovo if some more lasting form of local authority is not established. Organized crime from Albania is a threat, and Kosovars are apprehensive about the future role of the Kosovo Liberation Army. KLA soldiers still swagger around in combat fatigues and openly brandish weapons. "I appreciate what the KLA did during the war," said Faton Cahhas, a local journalist for Radio Gjakova. "But all the guns and uniforms make me nervous. I would like to see an independent media here, but if they (the KLA) are in charge, I don't think the KLA will tolerate that." For now, the most pressing concern is practical: how to prepare for the harsh Balkan winter. Estimates are that more than half of all homes in Kosovo were damaged or destroyed during the war, and international aid organizations are working feverishly to provide winterized shelter. In Gjakova alone, more than 30 organizations have set up shop. Each day aid workers head out in a clubby but competitive race to claim relief work turf by planting organizational flags and signs on damaged homes, schools, and medical clinics. "We've set a goal of winterizing homes for 2,000 families before November 1," said Ken Isaacs, project director for North Carolina- based Samaritan's Purse. "That gives us less than 100 days to get them ready. They get heavy snow here in the winter, and if we don't get them fixed before, then life here will be horrible." Mr. Isaacs said Samaritan's Purse will provide building materials, tools, and technical help, but residents will have to provide the labor and may even have to share houses with their neighbors this winter. One group that won't be sharing homes or taking part in any of the other rebuilding efforts will be local Serbs. Fearing reprisals, the entire Serbian population in Gjakova, only two percent by most estimates, has left. Now that they have gone, Albanians are making sure it won't be easy for them to come back. Albanians, whose own homes were destroyed, have burned or occupied Serb homes. They also vandalized and stripped clean the only Serbian Orthodox church in town. Free from Serb authority, residents of Gjakova believe they have the chance to create a better life than the one they have known since 1989, when Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic stripped the 90 percent Albanian majority in Kosovo of their autonomy. Ironically, many Kosovo Albanians seem ambivalent about the fate of Mr. Milosevic now that protests against him are spreading in Serbia. "In a way I hope he's not forced out," said Urime Shtaloja, an Albanian architect inspecting damaged homes. "He's bad for Serbia, and a strong Serbia is not good for us. But we cannot be so concerned about them. Now it's up to us. We need order and rules and security so that we can begin rebuilding Kosovo."

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