The Age
Rejected Kosovars caught in limbo


Saturday 22 April 2000

GNJILANE - Adnan Ajdini and his family are back where they started; well, almost.

World-weary and emotionally "destroyed", they are just 20 kilometres from home, from the house they left in terror exactly one year ago.

But despite its proximity, they do not expect to see it ever again, to tend its little garden or share laughter with neighbors.

The Ajdini home is in Serbia's troubled Presevo valley, a hotbed of ethnic tension and, if you believe Kosovo street talk, the likely next theatre of Balkans combat. The Ajdinis can no sooner return to Presevo, where Adnan would be labelled a military "deserter" and face prison, as fly to the moon.

So their 16,000-kilometre sojourn from the Bandiana refugee camp in country Victoria ended here, in the tiny village of Uglar, a few kilometres past the south-east Kosovo city of Gnjilane. They arrived on Wednesday after spending much of their first night camped out in a Gnjilane street and a second night in a makeshift school dormitory.

A local farmer has taken them in, giving them the use of two rooms tacked on to the back of his house. The rooms are bare except for a couple of squat sofas and a mattress on the floor.

The family have access to a small stove and have received their first food parcel from local aid agencies; a sack of flour, some cooking oil, a kilogram of beans and a kilogram of sugar.

The Ajdinis - Adnan, his wife, Naziktere, 40, and their sons, Ilir, 12, Alban, 11, and nine-year-old Valon - are one of the refugee families Australia has rejected, caught in a political conundrum and coerced into returning to the Balkans.

But the Ajdinis do not belong in Kosovo. Nor do they wish to stay here. They would like, says 40-year-old Adnan Ajdini, deeply troubled and with blood-red eyes, "to be in Australia with all our heart".

But realistically, he concedes, the family have a "1per cent chance" of returning because "Mr Philip Ruddock (the Federal Immigration Minister) insisted on this deportation".

His voice falters. "We are destroyed," he says, shaking his head. "I'm sorry. Our nerves you know."

His wife, frequently in tears during the course of a 90-minute interview, turns away and heads back to the house where the family will soon be bunkering down for their fourth night in Kosovo. Two sons watch their father as he looks on forlornly. Little Valon has run off crying, refusing to be photographed.

"I have little hope," says Adnan Ajdini, of no fixed abode.

In Kosovo, there is widespread consternation among United Nations officials and international aid workers, now struggling to hold together an increasingly fractious community, that Australia has pressured its Albanian refugees - and especially families like the Ajdinis - to come here.

"For the sake of a couple of hundred people, I just cannot understand it," says a senior UN official who acknowledges that the number returning from Australia (about 160 so far) pales alongside the deluge of Kosovars now being forced back in their thousands from Western Europe - Germany and Switzerland, in particular.

The mass influx is threatening another wave of dislocation as households try to make room for returning family members and aid agencies try to match growing housing demands with their under-resourced rebuilding programs.

More than 60,000 houses were destroyed in the war and although the United Nations-led Kosovo administration expects to have fixed or rebuilt 30,000 places by the end of this year, demand is likely to continue to outstrip supply, especially if another 150,000 returnees arrive over the summer as expected.

The UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, says bluntly that families that cannot be repatriated to their own homes, especially in neighboring Serbia, should not be sent here where they have no obvious means of support.

The Ajdinis - and another Presevo family sent from Australia, the Fejzullahus, now in neighboring Pogragje - fall into this category.

Neither the UN's Kosovo administration or KFOR peacekeepers have jurisdiction in Serbia to guarantee their safe return home. But the UN is careful not to accuse Australia of acting unlawfully, despite the occasional derogatory off-the-cuff references to Mr Ruddock by field staff.

Previous UNHCR calls for a rethink on returns have been met with stinging behind-the-scenes rebuke from Australia, one of the agency's biggest international donors, and the Geneva-based UN offshoot can ill afford to bite the hand that feeds it.

Pail Digging, a UNHCR spokeswoman, says Australia is entitled to send the Kosovars back; families might have been pressured to return but they had not been forced.

The UN refers to them somewhat euphemistically as "induced" returnees.

But the agency has been eager to buy time and to phase in returns to avoid a shutdown of distribution and care systems. "We understand the political imperative of sending these people back," says Ms Digging. "We're not asking countries to hold off forever. But just to give us warning and some time to deal with the problems."

The refugee surge, which could ultimately increase population by as much as 10per cent, also comes at an emotion-charged time. War crimes investigators this week resumed the exhumation of hundreds of as-yet-unidentified bodies from mass graves across the province and Kosovars are commemorating the one-year anniversaries of their dead and missing family members in page after page of grief-stricken public notices, personal footnotes to history, published in local newspapers.

"There is just so much emotion," says Ms Digging. "It's like ripping off some scab that hasn't healed up yet ... You can go along for a few days with things relatively peaceful and then everything just explodes. There doesn't seem to be any such thing as a fist fight here. When people crack they draw knives and guns."

The tension continues to manifest itself in inter-Albanian violence, prompting fears that local "strong men" and racketeers are prospering. Shopkeepers are said to be routinely forced to pay protection money to various CAL factions. Last week alone in the province there were 10 murders, 16 attempted murders and 26 arson attacks. On Tuesday a member of the new civilian force, the Kosovo Protection Corp, and former commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army, was gunned down in the middle of the day just 50 metres from the UN's bristling headquarters. Rocket-propelled grenade attacks on houses continue frequently. Police say robberies are commonplace and go mostly unrecorded.

Kosovo is hardly a haven but most administrators on the ground say the return of refugees, particularly those who do not come from Kosovo itself, remains a matter for Australia.

Back in Kosovo, with little more than $100 in their pockets and next to no prospect of work, the Ajdinis are waiting for an Australian Government official to arrive with the necessary paperwork for them to apply to return to Australia.

Intermediaries have promised that a man will come. But the Ajdinis aren't so sure. "Ruddock was very determined to get rid of us," says Naziktere Ajdini. "He was very persistent."

Original article