Many Kosovo Refugees Have Yet to Go Home

Many refugees from Kosovo are staying in Montenegro seven years after the war in the Balkans. The Roma, as usual, have the worst situation — a camp outside Podgorica and no clear place to go.

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Seven years ago, NATO bombs in Kosovo ended the last of the wars in what was once Yugoslavia. Yet many people displaced in that fight aren't back home. As NPR's Emily Harris reports from Montenegro, they're caught in a strange, social limbo and at the mercy of politics.

EMILY HARRIS reporting:

NATO bombed the Serb military in 1999 to stop Serbs from killing ethnic Albanians. Before and during the bombing, hundreds of thousands of people fled Kosovo, the Southern Republic of Serbia, where ethnic Albanians have long been the majority. Most of the Albanians have now gone back, but people who fear they'll now be the target of discrimination or violence by the majority didn't.

Popalin Palatsi(ph) is from Kosovo. He's Roma, a group routinely discriminated against in much of Europe, including Kosovo. He's 18 years old, and his passion is doves. He unlocks a small, wooden shed in the middle of a refugee settlement outside Montenegro's capital, and with whistles and kisses calls his pets outside.

(Soundbite of whistling)

HARRIS: His mother, Hati Nagotchi(ph)'s bright smile shows only one tooth on top. She has visited her mother in Kosovo several times since the NATO bombing. Her husband is in Kosovo now, trying to rebuild their home.

Ms. HATI NAGOTCHI (Refugee): (Through translator) I feel that I want to come back, but I'm frightened. I'm frightened when I sleep in Kosovo with my mother, I'm frightened what is going to be with us. People are not as they used to be, so everything has changed in Kosovo.

HARRIS: Skinny horses pick through piles of garbage at the edge of this camp. Cockroaches roam the walls of wooden barracks and the fragile additions built from any scrap material at hand. But even with 22 people sharing each toilet, refugee officials say these conditions are better than some other places people from Kosovo still stay.

They are all over. An estimated 200,000 people displaced from Kosovo are in Serbia; tens of thousands have spread through Europe. Here in tiny Montenegro, next door to Kosovo and newly independent from a union with Serbia, there are more than 16,000.

Any ethnic Serbs from Kosovo stay with relatives or pay for housing in Montenegro. Not Svetlana Bogachevich(ph). Her hair damp from the day's heat, she leads the way into the one room plus kitchen she shares with her husband and son. It's part of an old coastal motel for factory workers in the former Yugoslavia. Svetlana lights a candle that throws shadows onto the concrete walls. There has been no electricity here for two years. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees quit paying for it then as a part of an effort to resettle people into more stable situations. One family here has a generator, but not Svetlana's.

Mr. MITRISH BOGACHEVICH(ph): My name is Mitrish.

HARRIS: Svetlana's 12-year-old son says it's all right here in the summer. The former hostel is across a busy street from the Adriatic Ocean, and Mitrish loves to swim. He's lived here longer than he has anywhere else, but ask him where home is...

Mr. BOGACHEVICH: (Through translator) (Unintelligible) municipality, Kosovo.

HARRIS: Things can happen in the world of long-term displaced people that might seem odd from the outside. Despite poor sanitation and dangerous conditions at the Roma camp, U.N. refugee officials say spaces have illegally traded hands for as much as $400.

(Soundbite of child crying)

HARRIS: U.N. officials say Serbs refused to leave the old motel when the U.N. turned the lights off two years ago. Those leaving here now dismiss U.N. offers of resettlement help as insignificant or say, anyway, they don't want to move again. The oldest person here is Milena(ph), 76. The youngest is Andrea(ph), 20 months old. Her father, Nenad Dashitz(ph), blames the international community for the limbo his family is in.

Mr. NENAD DASHITZ (Refugee): (Through translator) It's not the Albanians who are to blame, it's the EU and NATO. If the same NATO wanted us to go back, we would go back. They are just pretending that there is a return of refugees in order to please the Albanians and let them have the independence they want so much.

HARRIS: Seven years after her left Kosovo, international talks on giving the province independence have reached a serious level. The U.N. is still helping people who want to return but is now also strongly pushing for them to have a real chance to build a new life in the countries where they landed. Here in Montenegro, people from Kosovo are given basic health care and education, but government officials say to properly and permanently take care of the 16,000 would cost $130 million. International donations for these people are simply not on that scale. Robin Ellis heads the U.N. refugee office in Montenegro. She says the government here is also concerned about the political impact of integrating people from Kosovo.

Ms. ROBIN ELLIS (U.N. Refugee Office, Montenegro): They've registered some concern that citizenship would also give some voting rights, and in a very small country like Montenegro, a difference of 1,000 votes could really change the dynamics of the country.

HARRIS: The status of Kosovo is expected to be decided around the end of this year. There is concern that either independence or ethnic Albanian anger at further delays could lead to tens of thousands of new refugees. The U.N. is preparing for the possibility. It's already set aside at least $600,000 to put things like tents and blankets in place near Kosovo's borders. Emily Harris, NPR News, Montenegro.

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