by Marek Antoni NOWICKI
Since the start of the game, the right to return was one of the critical points of almost every debate and political program related to Kosovo. Five years ago, an administration headed by the United Nations arrived in Kosovo with the presence of KFOR troops, while masses of Serbs and non-Albanians left. Today it is not difficult to understand the unease of the international community since the non-Albanians have continued to leave during the international presence, despite repeated calls to come back. Information documenting the departure of these families in the past five years is extremely limited.
No one has attempted to collect accurate numbers documenting how many Serbs and other non-Albanians left the province. Moreover, various players in Kosovo offer statistics that differ significantly. Nevertheless, thousands upon thousands of Serbs, Roma, Ashkalis and others have left Kosovo since 1999. Many of these undetermined thousands still reside in Serbia and Montenegro, living under unstable conditions without appropriate legal status. It is enough to visit the collective centers [for internally displaced persons] to understand the dramatic fate that has befallen these men and women from Kosovo.
But now, after all these years, the collective centers are gradually closing their doors and evicting these internally displaced persons. Media stories in Montenegro say that some internally displaced persons resorted to suicide as an exit strategy.
The right to return is not just a humanitarian issue but also one of the most fundamental of rights. As such, it should be respected and observed by all concerned, including the international community. Unfortunately, in the Balkans, like in other places in the world, internally displaced persons remain powerless - pawns of various and concurrent political agendas.
Serbian officials provide information that more than 200,000 non-Albanians have left Kosovo since 1999 while the UN and NGOs significantly reduce that number. Taking into account that they have limited resources at their disposal, the Serbian and Montenegrin authorities are doing too little to lighten the burden of those who fled from Kosovo. Why do these two governments not guarantee internally displaced persons the rights and benefits enjoyed today by refugees from Bosnia, for example, since it impossible to determine when they will be able to return to Kosovo?
Of course, this is the responsibility of these governments but at the same time there is at least a moral responsibility on the part of the international community to help. It is their duty to look after the interests of internally displaced persons, taking into account that the situation in the province is not ready, in many respects, for their return.
Despite significant quantities of money and effort dedicated to return, the result of these efforts are truly tragic. Even official UNHCR data covering the past five years confirms this to be the case.
In the context of such gloomy statistics, other issues emerge. How can an international or a local body get involved in a debate regarding returns and formulate a long-term strategy without precise critical numbers?
It is probably not a coincidence that it is almost impossible to find comprehensive numbers that would at least give an idea of how many families or individuals left during the past five years, taking into account the significant efforts and means invested in returns. Do you remember how every year since 1999 the government would renew a public campaign and publish that the current year was the "year of return"? How many times do we have go through this exercise? Is 2005 going to be another "year of return"?
Data and statistics aside, people are continually leaving from Kosovo, if not en masse, then one family after another. The tendency is there and it has gained strength since the violent events in March. It is easy to understand the decision to leave. It would be difficult to ignore everything that these communities, families and their neighbors have endured in the past five years.
This could help in understanding why the process of returns has not progressed in a significant way. Many internally displaced persons openly speak about their observations that this community is not provided with adequate security. Acts of violence, if not as frequent as earlier, still exist as does significant tension between ethnic communities in Kosovo. Stories from Kosovo circulate beyond the borders of the province, whether in the media or as told by internally displaced persons themselves. Of course, such stories color the views and perceptions of the situation in Kosovo of these families if they choose to return. Even though this dynamic is important, it does not explain it at all.
General economic stagnation is among the key factors. Especially difficult is the situation among non-Albanian communities. A large part of their property, apartments and fields have been stolen or are occupied. In the meanwhile, taking into account the general situation and the absence of a clearly defined status for the province, a large part of this property has been sold very cheaply, especially in urban environments. The sale continues, including the newly built housing objects and houses destroyed in March.
The general living conditions are not encouraging only the Serbs to leave. I frequently hear comments by young Kosovo Albanians who say with a laugh, when I speak about returns: The Serbs and other non-Albanians are asking to return and we are waiting for the first opportunity to leave.
Who knows better than the government in Belgrade the efforts that are necessary to draw people to go to Kosovo and to continue to live there. This is not only indicative of the present leadership but has been a standard operating procedure dating back to the time of the rule of Marshall Tito. Many Serbs still remain because of the parallel structures and support provided by Belgrade.
The great question remains: Will Kosovo become independent, divided or will it emerge as a different political entity? If I were an internally displaced person that has been waiting for the past five years somewhere in a collective center in Serbia or Montenegro, I would want to know far better than I know today what the political future of the country will be. Differently stated, I would want to know in which Kosovo I will be living if I decide to return there. This problem has been pointed out by individual governments and players but so far there has been no adequate response. It is difficult to even imagine that an independent Kosovo might encourage Serbian returns; the reverse effect is more likely.
I am very aware that it is politically incorrect to say this but no one should be playing with people's lives. Local and international efforts must be sincere and open with regard to returns. What is more, it is the responsibility of the international community and the local Kosovo government to ensure that even though it is such a difficult task everyone who decides to return is able to actually go ahead and do so.
On the other hand, people who decide for whatever reason to remain in the place where they are currently living, will eventually have to be provided with conditions for integration. Politically motivated miracle returns cannot be a justification for endlessly insisting on their previous living conditions and status, as is the case today. How long can internally displaced persons remain in the role of pawns? After all, everyone has only one life.
THE AUTHOR IS THE OMBUDSPERSON FOR KOSOVO. KATE MESTER, THE INTERNATIONAL ADVISOR FOR MEDIA, CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE.