Displaced in Z. Potok and Leposavić: We are second-class citizens, we only want our own roof over our heads

On the occasion of International Human Rights Day we are bringing you the story of people displaced during the Yugoslav wars who have found their temporary shelter in the municipalities in the north of Kosovo. For many, the temporary turned to permanent but without full resolution of their living situation and the quality of their life. The living conditions stymie their social inclusion as many continue to live in collection centers and barracks that are not designed to stand the test of time.

Twenty-five years spent in exile, in a wooden and, over time, run-down barracks, shadowed by poverty and hardships, Sanja and Jovanka are still living the refugee life in Velji Breg and Gazivode, in the municipality of Zubin Potok, as they themselves point out, often as second-class citizens. What they have in common is that both of them found their life partners right here, but also that they came here almost at the same time.

Sanja Bjelotomic came to Zubin Potok during “Oluja (Storm)” in August 1995 from Bosanski Drenovac in the municipality of Bosansko Grahovo, situated in the tri-border area between Bosnia, Lika, and Dalmatia.

Jovanka Milanović told us that upon arrival to Zubin Potok, she and her family were placed in a hall where they lived for a short while.

“We came here in October. And here is what we found, they put us here in this hall, in front of the factory. The cafeteria was on one side, and the hall was on the other, where the mattresses were placed, and that was it. Afterward, everyone did what they could, some left, some acquired some accommodation, these weekend cottages down in Varage, the barracks in Velji Breg”, Jovanka remembered.

Life without a home made from solid material is very difficult, but what is even more difficult is the term that follows them even today: refugees. All these years, they made valiant efforts to provide their children with a minimal standard of living, out of the desire to make them equal members of society. The conditions they live in, however, have not improved for two and a half decades.

“I have a 22-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son. The three of us live here by ourselves. We have nothing here, only these two little barracks and they are in a bad condition. They need to be fixed up”, said she adding that she manages to earn by working as a cook in a restaurant.

Those who found a job, they are living well, said her neighbor Jovanka. However, her and the life of her family did not improve over the years.
“I do not see any difference, because we always felt and feel like second-class citizens. Whatever you ask them for, they say – ‘Come tomorrow, go see this person, come the day after tomorrow, go to that person.’ With those words, simply put, they are maliciously troubling us”, Jovanka said.

Various promises were made to them. Numerous international organizations and NGOs showed interest, helping them occasionally, but without offering concrete solutions to their many problems. It all ended with aid in the form of food and clothing, while the housing issue was left in limbo.

Even though the visits of international organizations used to be frequent, recently, according to Jovanka, barely anyone comes to visit returnees.

The only ones continuously looking after the refugees are the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration of the Government of Serbia and the Red Cross. The aid from these institutions, however, is becoming less frequent, consisting mainly of several packages of food and hygiene products.

We continue the story of life as an expat in Leposavic, the home of two collective centers where twenty-five displaced persons live, mostly temporarily placed there. The biggest problem lies in the fact that this temporary solution has been going on for 20 years.
In the two buildings, built 30 years ago, they share very modest conditions. The life of families in the collective centers takes place in the rooms assigned to them, while all of their possessions are stored in about twenty square meters.

Milanka Slavković, who escaped from Prizren in 1999, changed her address several times, to Leposavic collection centre she arrived four years ago relocating from another such center in Brezovica.

Obrad Belošević moved to Leposavic from the collective center in Socanica, where he and his family lived for ten years. They moved due to the construction of a new building.
The Leposavic collection centre has been the home for Svetlana Zivkovic’s mother for the past 10 years.

“How can I describe collective life? You can see the living conditions. There are rooms, few bathrooms, they have a communal bathroom. They have separate rooms. They fixed things up a bit. It used to be ghastly, now it’s a little better,” described Svetlana her mother’s living conditions.

Her mother is disabled, but the gerontological nurse visits her every Tuesday and Fridays for an hour. She says that she submitted documents several times in order to receive an allowance for the help and care of another person, but that this did not happen.

One of the biggest problems of the tenants in the Leposavic collective center is that they all use one shared bathroom, but they also lack diversified food.

Radojica Filipovic, the secretary of the Red Cross in Leposavic, points out that this organization was previously more involved in the lives of refugees and displaced persons. Today, apart from an event organized once a year, they have no other authorities, but he adds that the collective centers were partially renovated a few years ago.

“When it comes to the state of collective accommodation, the situation in it is somewhat better than it was before. In a way, they got amenities in those living spaces. The number of people living there has decreased. So, I believe that these people have some normal living conditions there. A lot of renovation has been done and our state has invested in the renovation, as did the Commissariat for Refugees. So they have the most basic things people need. This is not enough, that’s for sure,” Filipovic said.

Every refugee’s dream is a small dream of owning his own home. Since they no longer talk about returning, their only wish is to have a safe roof over their heads. Although it seems impossible to them, they still hold hope that they will leave their rooms and wooden barracks once and for all.

The production of this reportage was supported by the British Embassy in Pristina and the International Organization for Migration (IOM)


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