Hope on the Balkans Kosov@ Crisis
No welcome in Belgrade for Serbs fleeing Kosovo
Serbian families escaping from Kosovo have bought a one-way ticket to Belgrade and what they hoped would be refuge - but have found themselves at the door of an inhospitable host.
By Vesna Stojanovic in Belgrade
The security of the Pinki Sports Hall in the Zemun area of Belgrade, is preventing visitors from going inside where the Serbs from Kosovo have been accommodated. Two hundred people, many of whom are children and four are babies, sleep together, on the floor. They have two toilets.
An elderly woman from Suva Reka says: "I felt better among the Albanians in Kosovo, than I do among my people here in Serbia. Albanians paid me more respect."
Kosovars are gathering together in front of the hall. A wedding is taking place on the floor above their hall. Music can be heard.
"The wedding party is now dining", says a twelve-year-old boy longingly, thus revealing that these people are hungry. A red car stopped in front of the hall, and the hall's director Nada Djuric got out of it. We asked her for a permission to visit the refugees, but the director said: "I don't know what you are talking about, I only came to the wedding."
"I feel as if I am not in my native country. Some youngsters carrying clubs pass by at night. They tell us that we are Shiptars (ethnic Albanians) and that we should go back to Kosovo," one man complains.
A woman from Suva Reka begins to cry. She says she wishes she could go somewhere as soon as possible. Her nineteen-year-old son says that he no longer has a reason to live. He is lying on the floor and has fever.
"I used the public transportation few days ago," she says. "I showed a conductor my card testifying I am a displaced person from Kosovo. He said he didn't care, and that I should return there, since all of us, Serbs from Kosovo, voted for Milosevic. That is why the Shiptars should kill us."
The Pinki Sports Hall and the human dramas inside it are only an excerpt of the plight of Serb refugees from Kosovo. According to the official data by UNHCR, there are currently 193,000 displaced persons in Serbia. About 90 percent have a private accommodation, with relatives and friends or in their own houses they built in the early 1970s sensing what would happen with Kosovo.
Those who did not have a place where to go, are accommodated in the so-called refugee camps, even though no one in Serbia will acknowledge that they are refugees, or that there are refugee camps for people from Kosovo.
The Civil Protection Headquarters, that is in charge of receiving the displaced from Kosovo is meticulously concealing the information about the places where they are now located, since the image of camps does not fit into the regime's declaration of "our victory in Kosovo." They say that they are not keeping the count, that the people from Kosovo are staying in Serbia illegally, and that they will secure their return to Kosovo.
One can find out the address of the "camps" only through personal contacts, as if they were a state secret. About 138 people from Kosovo, mostly from the township of Istok, have found refugees in the barracks of the Novi Auto Put company, in Lestani, a suburb near Belgrade.
These people are occasionally visited by the representatives of the municipal authorities. They say that they are unable to feed them, to pay their water and electricity bills. They also remind them that they are staying in Serbia illegally. The Serbian Orthodox Church is providing them with one meal a day. For the rest, they have to fend for themselves.
In Kraljevo, for example, the displaced have 'occupied' 12 schools. In Vranje, 900 people are located in a sports hall. Tamara Pavlovic, a student from Vranje, who arrived two days ago to Belgrade, says that he saw the police guarding the sports hall in Vranje, forbidding the displaced to stroll around, and preventing visitors from reaching them.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is the only one distributing the humanitarian aid to the displaced. According to the UN recommendation, announced on August 10, 1999, the Western countries are advised not to distribute humanitarian aid to Serbia through the Red Cross, since by nature of its existence this organisation has to cooperate with the Serbian government. The only institution the UN recommends is the Serbian Orthodox Church and the International Orthodox Charitable Organisation.
Children's education is one of the burning problems.
A seventeen-year old youth said he had gone to the Economics Secondary School in Zemun to enrol. The director told him he could not enrol to school in Belgrade, but that the enrolment to school for the pupils from Kosovo will be organised in Kosovska Mitrovica.
"What will I do there?" the youth asks. "Albanians will kill me. I want to go to school. I always had top marks."
The Ministry of the Republic of Serbia passed a decision on 26 August that the pupils displaced from Kosovo may enrol in schools in the bordering municipalities of Serbia and in places where they are located. The municipalities on the border with Kosovo are defined as bordering ones.
However, according to one teacher who works in a Belgrade school, who wanted to remain anonymous, a day after the Ministry's decision, all directors of the primary schools in Belgrade had a meeting with Education Minister Jova Todorovic. They were told at the meeting not to enrol pupils from Kosovo into their schools, and if their parents come to school to protest to send them to the Ministry. The teacher adds: "My director said she will not allow the children from Kosovo to enrol, because she is afraid of losing the job."
The secretary of one primary school in Belgrade, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said that several pupils from Kosovo enrolled in his school and that he did not care whether he would be held responsible for that. "The children cannot lose one school year because of the stupid politics. What will happen to all these generations? First the wars, then the bombing, and, then, to miss school. Where does all that lead?"
Judging by all, the schools will individually have to decide about the enrolment issue, which means that utter lawlessness will set in. On director says ironically, that the children will be enrolled temporarily, with a photocopy of their diploma, and not the original, "so that it would be easier to withdraw them from the register when it suits this state and our minister."
While the Serbs from Kosovo must cope with a hostile welcome in Belgrade, those in the south of Serbia are still finding it hard to believe that the army had withdrawn from Kosovo. Many hope to return to Kosovo together with the Yugoslav army.
Meanwhile, there are hardly any Serbs remaining in Kosovo. There are fewer than 1,000 Serbs in Pristina. There are 24 in Stimlje guarded by KFOR. There is not one single Serb in Djakovica. Nor in Pec.
According to three Serbs who returned from Pec five days ago, where they went with a KFOR escort, all Serb villages around Pec have been burnt. The Serbs from Orahovac are now in the Church in the upper part of town. Serbs from Pristina and the surrounding areas found shelter in the Gracanica Monastery. There are about 20 Serbs in Prizren, in the Orthodox Seminary. There are none in the town itself.
The Serbs from Kosovo had bought a one-way ticket and arrived at the house of an inhospitable host.
Vesna Stojanovic is a human rights activist and writer based in Belgrade.
© Institute of War &Peace Reporting
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