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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Kosovo becomes a place of no return for angry Serb refugees

Impoverished by economic collapse and ravaged by NATO airstrikes, Serbian towns can do little to help the streams of angry refugees now arriving on their doorsteps from Kosovo.

By an independent journalist in Cacak

The first 1,000 Serbian refugees from Kosovo pitched up in Cacak just two days after the end of NATO airstrikes, trailing behind the withdrawing Serb police and army units.

Among them were around a hundred people who have been left refugees twice over. They had been forced out of their homes by fighting in Bosnia or by Croatia's lightning offensive in the Krajina in 1995, and had been relocated to refugee centres in Kosovo.

The loss of the war there last month made them refugees again and forced them to head for Cacak, a town 120 kilometres south of Belgrade.

Here they ruefully recall how President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party (SPS) used to lay on buses to ship them to political rallies to boost their audiences. There were no buses laid on for their escape from Kosovar Albanian vengeance.

"When it suited Milosevic and his SPS," said Vladimir Tomic from the village of Kosin near Urosevac, "we were driven by buses from one rally to the next, in order to support those who have now betrayed us.

"They kept asking us not to move out, even though all the local politicians had already escaped to Serbia long before. Then when we did come out of Kosovo the police set up water cannon to prevent us from reaching Belgrade."

The state TV claims repeatedly that the refugees are going back to Kosovo, but the opposite can be seen in Cacak, where the refugees appear to be staying and another 100-150 more arrive daily.

"If the authorities claim that the territorial sovereignty and integrity have been preserved in Kosovo, why doesn't then Milosevic show up in Kosovo now?" asked Dragan Perisic from Istok, who had arrived in Cacak two days earlier.

"The border with Albania has practically been left open, our houses are being plundered and set on fire," he complained. "And the Russians, from whom we had expected so much, have stationed themselves on at [Pristina's] Slatina Airport, and are not budging."

Those few who were persuaded to risk a return to Kosovo after the fighting stopped, returned to Cacak with days.

"I left ten days ago but found Serb houses in Kosovo plundered and burnt," said one of these few, Cedomir Koricanin, a teacher and a father of five from the village of Nakl, near Pec. "The Italian soldiers of KFOR [now based in his home town] are not able to protect the Serbs, even though they may be willing to do so. There are just not enough of them."

The situation in Cacak is deteriorating by the day. Before the Kosovo crisis the town was already struggling to accommodate some 5,000 refugees expelled from the Krajina in 1995. Many are still living in converted community theatres and civic offices, and must now make space for the latest refugees.

Promises of support from the Belgrade authorities came to nothing and the impoverished city government has had to try and meet the cost of providing for the refugees itself. It has no income and little resources to do so. The local farmers are too poor to employ even seasonal workers.

"The loss of privacy, the feeling of helplessness, especially felt by men who are traditional breadwinners, have led to increasing psychological disturbances among these people," says Gordana Cerovic, a clinical psychologist at Cacak Medical Centre. "They are ever more frequently beginning to express mutual intolerance. Conflicts are on the rise, and alcoholism is ever more present."

The refugees encountered upon their arrival in Cacak a destroyed economy, an impoverished municipal budget, and a jobless local population. The farmers no longer have money, so that they cannot employ an extra hand for seasonal works on the land, which represented one source of income for refugees from Croatia and Bosnia over the last four years.

"If the influx of refugees continues," says city council president Milan Kandic, "we will no longer be able to help them. I only wonder where are all those "patriotic forces" that so wholeheartedly advocated the war in the first place?"

The author is a Belgrade-based journalist whose identity is being witheld

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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