After many Serbs fled their homes in the violent aftermath of the Kosovo war in 1999, some villages in the country are now almost completely deserted, with poor economic conditions deterring most people from returning.
The last families left for Serbia in end of June 1999. The next day, someone set the houses on fire.
Two decades later, Zhakova/Zakovo remains in ruins. Like many other similar ‘ghost villages’ in Kosovo, its residents never came back.
“I have seen that even the stones of the houses have been taken. The Serb residents used some special stones to build their houses,” a 72-year-old Albanian man from the neighboring village of Shushice/Susica, who did not want to give his name, told BIRN.
“I did not see any Serbs from Zhakova taking part in crimes against Albanians. I cannot say if they were involved in any other place in Kosovo,” he added.
A desecrated cemetery above the village is covered over with grass and shrubs. The last person buried here was in February 1999, one month before NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslav forces to force them to end their military campaign in Kosovo. The headstone is broken, and apart from the surname Petkovic, the inscription is unreadable.
Over the last two decades, only two of the gravestones that have been damaged have been renovated. Another one has been partially rebuilt, but the rest remain in disarray. In one of the graves, some bones have even been exposed as soil has eroded.
Widespread post-war depopulation
Like Zhakova/Zakovo, many other villages in Kosovo have been emptied of their Serb residents. Only a small percentage of those who fled have returned over the years.
Just after the war ended, many Serbs were targeted by armed groups, and many fled Kosovo fearing revenge attacks.
Clint Williamson, the American prosecutor who was appointed by the European Union to look into allegations made in an explosive 2010 report by Council of Europe investigator Dick Marty, said in 2014 that information compiled by an EU investigative task force indicates that certain elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army intentionally targeted ethnic minorities such as Serbs in the post-war period.
“Acts of persecution included unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and forced displacements of individuals from their homes and desecration of graveyards and religious sites,” Williamson said.
According to Kosovo’s Ministry of Communities and Returns, 226,418 people have been displaced in the country since 1999.
Silvija Raskovic, Head of the Office for Communities and Returns in the Istog/Istok municipality, in which Zhakova/Zakovo is located, says that the process of return is continuing, although slowly.
“Since 2002, when the first residents started to return to their houses in Istog municipality, there have been 1,295 returnees. We cannot say that the return process is sustainable. In the last five years, only 60 people have been returned,” Raskovic said.
She explained that the biggest obstacles that have prevented a sustainable return process were the usurpation of properties, the intimidation of returnees, people’s lack of proper documents and problems related to inheritance procedures.
In the formerly Serb-populated villages of Bince and Belince, which also almost emptied after the war, a few houses were rebuilt in recent years but their residents had to abandon them again because they could not make a living.
Remaining villagers are old and lonely
In the eastern part of Kosovo, people’s reasons for leaving are not only connected to the war and its violent aftermath.
Vlajinka Stojic, an 82-year-old woman from the village of Makresh/Makres, near Novobrdo, cited the lack of opportunities to live a normal life.
Until 1999, Makresh/Makres was home to around 300 people while now, according to Stojic, there are no more than 20 left.
Her home is on the hilltop by the side of the main road, and she has witnessed how the village has quietly emptied of its residents. Their main destination has been Serbia or other Serb-majority areas in Kosovo.
Stojic lamented that their departure has made her increasingly lonely.
“Over the years, I have seen fewer lights in the houses and less smoke from the chimneys,” she said.
“For days on end, I don’t see any residents. The majority of residents who have remained here are older people. Four of my children have left. It seems that nobody will remain here soon,” she added.
Life in the village used to be good, she recalled.
“We had a market as a family business here and a lot of land to work on. We also had livestock. Rural life was so good,” she said.
The market that her family once owned now is closed and serves as a store for jars of pickles and unused implements.
“There were lots of people before who we could talk to, for better or worse. Now I spend my days in the garden, taking care of chickens and dogs,” Stojic said.
In villages like Makresh/Makres, where the population has thinned out drastically, the remaining residents face a lack of work, limited access to services and poor infrastructure and transport links, problems which have exacerbated the depopulation trend.
“I live on a pension which is 90 euros [a month]. But it is hard to get around to fulfill personal needs despite the fact it is not far from the city. Here we don’t have any support or care. Nobody from the government or municipality has come here,” Stojic said.
Few incentives to return
Sreten Stojic, aged 38, who works as security guard at the school in Makresh/Makres, said that when he talks to the village’s elderly inhabitants, they have tears in their eyes when they speak about how things have changed.
“I remember my generation, there were more than 100 pupils at the school. Now there are only eight,” he said.
Many other rural areas in which people have abandoned their homes since the war have also struggled to recover, a problem that is partly due to lack of economic development countrywide.
According to a report by the UN refugee agency UNHCR on displaced persons from Kosovo, a total of 3,236 Serbs and 576 Roma have expressed their interest to voluntarily return to Kosovo.
In 2005, Kosovo established the Ministry of Communities and Returns, which has tried to entice people to stay or come back.
But Silvija Raskovic cautioned that investment in the returns process for villages like Zhakova/Zakovo has been minor – “in the last two years, only 170,000 euros have been invested in the issue of returning in the Istog municipality”, she said.
Sreten Stojic said that he doesn’t want his village to die.
“But then again, it is hard to stay,” he added. “The depopulation continues.”
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