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Monday, June 28, 1999 Published at 22:21 GMT 23:21 UK

World: Europe

Eyewitness: A Mitrovica homecoming

People push wheelbarrows of rubble as in Berlin in 1945

By Caroline Wyatt

There were no regrets at leaving Kukes, as Elvane Kelmendi and her sister Fehime Karakashi rolled up their mattresses and bade farewell to the tent that had housed their family of 12 for almost two months.

Kosovo: Special Report
They had little else to take - just the sacks of flour and tins of cooking oil supplied by the aid agencies as Kosovo Albanian refugees left the camps.

Elvane, a doctor, and Fehime, an English teacher, had arrived in Albania with next to nothing.

Their family had had to walk for 27 days as they fled their home in northern Kosovo, which had come under heavy shelling by the Serbs.

Caroline Wyatt: "The family had had to walk for 27 days"
Elvane carried her 7-year-old daughter Hana for the last 20 miles of that journey, her feet blistered and bleeding.

Fehime's three young sons still worried every time their parents were out of sight, fearing that something terrible would happen to them.

Yet this family still considered themselves lucky: at least they had all escaped Kosovo alive, including their father and two brothers.

But going back to Mitrovica was also a frightening prospect.

Would their homes still be there? And if they were, would they have been booby-trapped or even mined by the departing Serb police and paramilitaries?

It was a long and anxious journey home.

Houses burning

As we drove across the border, Hana ducked and hid as she saw the Nato troops.

"Are they Serbs?" she asked her mother.

"No, they're good soldiers. They've come to protect us," Elvane replied.

[ image: A tearful reunion with friends]
A tearful reunion with friends
It was dark by the time we reached Mitrovica. Along the way, in village after village, the houses were burning.

But this time, it was those of the departing Serb civilians, and of gypsies or Kosovo Albanians believed to have collaborated with the Serbs.

As we drove into Mitrovica, it was clear this was not the city as Fehime and Elvane remembered it.

The lively streets they had described to me, over cups of tea in their tent in Kukes, were almost deserted.

The beautiful houses, with flowers in the garden, were heaps of rubble.

The rows of what had been shops in the mainly Albanian part of town were not only burnt down by the Serbs, but their wreckage had been bulldozed as well.

The city looked much like Berlin did in 1945; a desolate air hung about it, with a few people pushing wheelbarrows full of rubble.

There was joy as the family arrived at their parents' home that night to find it almost intact: it had been looted but was on a street that had escaped the worst of the Serbs' hatred.

Their mother, Gjylsym Kurshumliu, and father, Ibrahim, showed me the bullet holes where Serb snipers had shot through their living room windows, and the damage done to their roof by a hand grenade; all done while the family and their four young children were hiding terrified in their basement kitchen.

There was sadness as they met friends and neighbours who told of their sons and husbands who had been taken by the Serbs and were still missing, believed to be dead.


But that night the family celebrated their safe return together to their own home town - and their first meal cooked in their own kitchen and eaten at a table, not queued for and eaten in a tent.

It hardly seemed to matter that even most of their knives, forks, glasses and plates had been stolen while they were away.

[ image: Elvane can see her house but cannot return]
Elvane can see her house but cannot return
The next day Fehime and Elvane went out to look at their own homes.

As Fehime opened the gate to her garden, she already knew what was in store: the rest of her street, bar two Serbs' houses, had been burnt to ashes.

There was nothing left of the home she had fled more than two months ago.

She and her husband Arbnor looked at the wreckage of the house they had worked on so hard together and looked away.

"They hated us, the Serbs," she said.

"I don't know why. We were always kind to our Serb neighbours - they were quite old so we asked the children to be quiet so they wouldn't disturb them.

"Couldn't they have said something to the people who burnt down our house?"

Divided city

But the Serb neighbours had fled by now and there was no-one left to answer the question so many Kosovo Albanians were asking: "Why?"

Fehime wept quietly as she realised that not even one family photo had escaped the blaze. The pictures of her sons as babies, their clothes, their toys, were all gone.

When I left Mitrovica, Elvane still hadn't been to her home.

When we tried to cross the bridge into the mainly Serb side of the city, it was barred by French K-For troops sitting by their tanks.

"You are Serbs?" they asked us as we approached.

"No, Elvane is a Kosovo Albanian trying to get to her home," we explained.

The soldiers told us, with an embarrassed shrug, that it still wasn't safe to cross to the other side.

"So what are you doing here?" Elvane shouted angrily, crying tears of sheer frustration.

Her home was within sight - just a few hundred metres away, but on the other side of the bridge stood a group of hostile Serb men, some singing nationalist songs.

Allegedly, many Serb civilians in northern Mitrovica were still armed.

The French K-For troops, here to protect both sides, seemed not yet to be in control of half the city.

Elvane said that she would try again the next day - and this time she wanted to go back to her home to live, not just to look.

Her house was just a few short steps away, but the journey to peace in Kosovo still has a lot further to go.

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