The Age
Refugees return to the ruins of Kosovo


Saturday 15 April 2000

PRISTINA - Ali Kastrati, 73, says he has come back to Kosovo to die in his home rather than on foreign soil. Mind you, he says the foreign soil - Australia - was wonderful and he can see why anyone would want to live there.

Ali, a chronic smoker, has chronic asthma. During his stay at the East Hills haven outside Sydney, he spent a total of 26 days in hospital. When he arrived in Bulgaria early this week, he had to make the final leg of his arduous repatriation in an ambulance.

The other eight members of Ali's family who returned from Australia took the bus, a six-hour journey from Sofia on top of the long flight from Australia.

They are living in his son's house, 30 minutes out of Pristina, on a village farm at Vershevc. They have to, because Ali's own house, where he lived for decades with his wife, Hajrie, was destroyed by hand grenades, tossed through the windows during the first Serb offensive in 1998.

So they have returned from the other side of the world, these nine refugees, to share three rooms with 30 others.

You can imagine the logistical fiasco of showering, sleeping and dining, but don't worry too much about the latter: the 40 people now sharing this solid but humble accommodation are embarrassed because they do not have enough food for themselves, let alone for foreign visitors.

While the Australian Government has used safety as the leading criterion in deciding who among the Kosovar refugees can stay and who must return, it might just have overlooked something more difficult to define: the essentials of daily life.

Ali and his family agreed to come back - he wants to make that clear. They also do not agree with some other Kosovars that they have been treated shabbily.

Ali was offered the chance to stay in Australia for another three months, but he feels too ill and does not want to be caught outside of Kosovo if the worst happens suddenly.

Now the family is gradually milling around. The young ones have learnt some English during their year in Australia and, for all their current privation, they have the curiosity of the young and winning smiles.

Ali, as the head of the household, is shown the respect expected in this culture. He smokes, ponders, answers questions willingly - all the while, the children stand quietly behind him, venturing a response only when asked directly.

Most of them have resumed school. Six kilometres away. Yes, they must walk.

One of Ali's three sons, Shaqir, 45, is the only one in the house earning money. He accepts any menial laboring job he can get, but the competition among the villagers is tough, and many returned months ago. They have quite a head-start on Shaqir, so his family is hungry.

They have killed their six cows and eaten the meat. They used to grow potatoes and other crops to sell at market, but now they do not dare tread their fields for fear of mines. And their tools were stolen anyway. All the children grew to love Australia, but when the patriarch decided they would come home, family loyalty dictated their future. Enigmatically, they say they would love to go back to Australia ... but to visit, not to live. Kosovo is home.

Michael Barton and Sheremet Kukaj work at the International Organisation for Migration. "We appreciate and understand the right of governments to send Kosovars back now," Mr Barton says, "but we have to gently say through the UN that this is a fragile infrastructure already under duress from too many people.

"Every time they send another thousand people back here, the harder our job is and the more strain it puts on the rebuilding."

The trickiest question you can ask Kosovars today is how they see the next five years unfolding, and what they would want to happen. Wherever I have asked them to contemplate the future - Pristina, Podujevo, Vershevc - it has always caused a prolonged silence.

This time, the Kastratis agree, that all ethnic Albanians must work together. And that the rest of the world must stay here until industry, jobs and productivity have resumed.

Ali and Hajrije slowly make their way across the grass separating their current accommodation from their destroyed home.

Today is the first really warm day of the Kosovo spring, and the old ones say it helps a bit, warming the bones. The children are happy, too, because they can play outside.But even for willing returnees like the nine Kastratis, it is the new spring of an uncertain future.

Original article