'We Don't Allow Serbs': Kosovar City's First Serb Returnee Reopens Wartime Wounds

By Bekim Bislimi Ljudmila Cvetkovic Andy Heil

PRISTINA -- Dragica Gasic called it a "wish fulfilled."

Early last month, she became the first Serb returnee to the city of Gjakova, in western Kosovo, since the 1998-99 war that started the countdown to Kosovo's declared independence nearly a decade later.

But by June 30, following weeks of harassment by her ethnic-Albanian neighbors, Gasic had retreated to her sister's property near their childhood home about 30 kilometers away.

She fled after police prevented her from installing a security door on her apartment. And if it weren't for the police protection she got within days of her arrival, Gasic insisted, she might not have gotten out of the town alive.

Now, Gasic has returned to her old-new home in Gjakova and is bracing for the legal fallout as officials file suit to annul her lease and stoke petition drives to keep her -- and, seemingly, other ethnic Serbs like her -- out of their midst.

“I notified the police that I'm coming, the police came [and] the apartment was all alright, nobody touched anything," she told RFE/RL's Balkan Service after her latest relocation on July 8. "Police asked me if I had any problems, I said I didn’t. So, I just came. No problems for now."

Her stop-and-start case in Europe's newest independent state highlights thorny minority issues in a region ravaged by ethnically fueled wars in the 1990s that remain an obstacle to Balkan reconciliation.

It also amplifies international concerns that the successor states of the former Yugoslavia remain hostage to enmities that could reignite to threaten Europe's future.

Gasic told RFE/RL that the Office for Kosovo Affairs in neighboring Serbia will help her in a court battle to keep her lease in Gjakova.

Bigger Questions

Gasic originally came to Gjakova from a neighboring town when she was just 18 years old, and says she spent the best years of her life there.

Some of her detractors in Gjakova's overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian public cite Gasic's work for Serbia's national police force during the war.

She says she was merely a cleaning woman.

"I know I never did anything ugly to anyone," Gasic said of her two decades in Gjakova before she crossed a now-partly recognized international border into Serbia amid rising violence in the late 1990s. "I gave birth to two children here."

Her case quickly drew in the Serbian government, which still does not recognize Kosovo's independence and has extended public support to Gasic -- reportedly including their donation of the security door that Gjakova police confiscated rather than allowing it to be mounted in a municipal building.

The head of the Serbian government's office for Kosovo, Petar Petkovic, emerged from a highly publicized meeting with Gasic on June 28 vowing that Serbia and President Aleksandar Vucic would "do everything possible to enable a dignified, human life for Dragica Gasic."

Petkovic later said that Gasic's case was raised at a meeting of the Brussels dialogue aimed at normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina, highlighting its potential to increase regional friction.

The Kosovar government has been mostly silent, aside from one member of the cabinet who holds a post traditionally set aside for ethnic Serbs in this landlocked country of around 1.9 million people.

Goran Rakic, Kosovo's minister for returns and communities, called the case "shameful and unacceptable."

"In the 21st century, this treatment of returnees and the return process is clearly an intention to completely stop the process and render it meaningless," Rakic said via Facebook.

Mostly Staying Away

Many ethnic Serbs left during or after the 1998-99 war, which famously included the NATO bombing of Yugoslav targets and ushered in a UN interim administration.

The UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, says that nearly 29,000 voluntary minority refugees -- that is, non-ethnic Albanians -- have returned to Kosovo since 1999.

Those numbers surged in the years around Pristina's 2008 declaration of sovereignty from Serbia but have since ebbed to under 500 returnees a year since 2016.

It is unclear how many of them are ethnic Serbs, and the Kosovar government did not respond to RFE/RL queries about plans for the return of displaced Serbs to Kosovo.

But Gasic is, by all local accounts, the first Serb to come back to Gjakova.

She returned on June 6, after the Kosovo Property Agency had approved and implemented her longstanding request to evict the current occupants of her old apartment so that she could be allowed to live there herself.

She was met with local outrage and confrontation.

Gasic said she had been verbally abused and signs and pictures had been hung on her door, strangers had pounded on the door, and she even claimed to have been shot at.

"I really have no words," she told RFE/RL's Balkan Service last month, before she fled the nearly constant harassment.

"Why would I come back to my apartment if I didn't think I'd stay here?" Gasic said. "I speak Albanian, I know how to get around. So just don't harass me."

The city's mayor, Adrian Gjini, told local media that Gasic registered the apartment in question as hers in 1997. In an allusion to the ethno-nationalist violence that was brewing ahead of the war, Gjini called it a contentious period.

The mayor said that, while he understood the grief of the relatives of missing persons, he talked to police about ensuring peace and the dispute would have to make its way through legal channels.

There has been pushback also from groups like the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) Kosovo, an independent Pristina-based group that promotes transitional justice to contribute to peace- and state-building.

Every displaced person deserves a right to return to their property and their previous home, if they so choose, according to HLC Kosovo's Bekim Blakaj.

"I fully understand the families of the victims in Gjakova, and I understand that in Gjakova there is an extremely large number of killed and missing and that their families have not yet seen justice," Blakaj told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "However, the return of persons to their own properties, to their own apartments, should not be conditioned [on anything else]."

He said that appeared to be Gasic's case, and he urged Kosovo's security institutions, "first and foremost, to provide her with security and ensure that no one bothers her."

'Wounds Still Open'

Gjakova's mostly Muslim residents suffered heavily during the conflicts of the 20th century, from a grisly "gallows alley" during the First Balkan War to mass expulsions and killings cited at the war-crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Some 6,500 people were still missing after Kosovo's guerrilla war for independence from Serbia in 1998-99.

Numerous mass graves in Kosovo and in Serbia have been discovered to contain about 70 percent of those individuals' remains.

But around 1,600 more, most of them ethnic Albanians, are still unaccounted for.

Those include some of Gjakova's 1,000 or so victims of the Milosevic era.

The relatives of some of the area's ethnic Albanians who disappeared are bitter about Gasic's return.

In all, 11 NGOs in the municipality have pledged themselves to a petition drive to ensure that Gasic is forced to leave.

Some of them tried to organize a protest in front of her apartment late last month but abandoned those plans after talks with Mayor Gjini.

Gjini's office has declined on multiple occasions to respond to RFE/RL questions about the case, but Gjini reportedly told the would-be protesters that Gasic wasn't in the apartment.

Later, Gasic confirmed that she had temporarily left the apartment on June 30 out of concern for her safety. Instead, she was staying at her sister's house about 20 kilometers away.

Nysrete Kumnova, who represents a support group for women who lost husbands or children in the war called Mothers' Calls, insists that they won't allow a single Serb to resettle in Gjakova.

"She is not going to live here," Kumnova told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "All [Serbs] committed crimes and the wounds are open."

Kumnova is still searching for her own son, who was abducted from his home along with five other ethnic Albanian men by Serb forces in 1999.

The remains of the other five have been identified from among those in a mass grave.

"And for her to come here to live? Right. And not only that, but we don't allow any Serbs" to return here, Kumnova said.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Bekim Bislimi and Sandra Cvetkovic