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One-way ticket to Kosovo

Homeward bound

(swissinfo.ch)

As the Swiss prepare to vote on whether to tighten the country's asylum laws, swissinfo followed a Serbian Kosovar on his journey home.

In the first of a three-part series, Julie Hunt finds out what brought refugee Zoran Stojanovic to Switzerland.

Thirty-eight-year-old Zoran is probably one of the last ethnic Serbs to return to Kosovo under the Swiss government's voluntary repatriation programme.

The programme was launched in 1999 and has since led to the voluntary return of some 30,000 people - mainly ethnic Albanians - to Kosovo.

Zoran decided to abandon an 18-month safe haven in Switzerland and return home, because he missed the wife and children he had left behind.

War breaks out

When war broke out in Kosovo, Zoran was working as a school director in the village of Pones near the town of Gjilan/Gnilane, forty minutes by car from the capital, Pristina.

Pones is a mixed village in which Serbs and Albanians peacefully coexist and where children from both ethnic groups still attend the same school.

The village itself was not directly targeted during the war, so its homes escaped destruction.

Zoran denies any involvement in the ethnic cleansing of Albanians, but began to fear for his life during the backlash that followed.

The Kosovo Liberation Army was picking off intellectuals, just as the Serb police had done before them.

"I got scared because Albanian separatists were mistreating the Serb population and stopping cars near the Kosovo-Serb border to check up on the people who were leaving," remembers Zoran.

"They had a list of people who they believed had collaborated with the Serb police and the Yugoslav Army. I think my name was on it. They took people away and we never saw them again."

It was Zoran's brother Stojan, a resident in the Swiss city of Winterthur, who eventually came to his rescue and offered him a place to live.

As he set off for a new life in Switzerland, Zoran said a hasty goodbye to the family he was leaving behind.

Watching the car pull out of the village, Zoran's wife and three children had no idea when they would see him again, or what would become of them as they contemplated a future without the family breadwinner.

Making ends meet

Stojan and his wife, Violetta, were renting a large, well-equipped apartment in a tower block in Winterthur, and had to bring up three daughters on very low salaries.

Zoran - who was not allowed to work for the first six months of his stay in Switzerland - was both a welcome guest and another mouth to feed.

Since asylum seekers are only allowed to work in a restricted number of blue-collar industries, Zoran was unable to put to use either his engineering degree or his experience as a heating engineer and school director.

He eventually found work as a dishwasher and cleaner at a motorway service station.

"We used to call him 'The Professor' because of his background," recalls Zoran's former manager, Roger Manser.

"He always gave one hundred per cent. He wasn't ashamed to do such humble work, although it must have been difficult for him. I must say I was very pleased with him."

Zoran managed to pay his way in Winterthur and send a little money home to his family in Kosovo, doing overtime by filling in for absent colleagues and clocking up an average of 200 hours per month over an eight-month period.

"Switzerland is a great place to live as long as you have a job," he says.

Back in Pones

Back home, Zoran's wife, Jasmine, and their children had become virtual prisoners in their own home.

"The children cried constantly," says Jasmine. "Then the stealing began. Tractors and cows began to disappear."

Amid reports of kidnappings and post-war reprisals, around one thousand Serbs fled the village of Pones in fear of their lives.

Jasmine lost her job as an assistant at a local shop when the owner packed up and ran away.

By then, there were only around 500 Serbs left in Pones, guarded by Nato-led K-For troops stationed at the end of the village.

The Stojanovic family was unable to leave the area without an army escort.

Twice a week, K-For patrols would accompany the family to Serbia, where they could do their shopping in peace.

Pining for home

Zoran, too, felt like a prisoner as he waited for a decision from the Swiss authorities on his asylum application.

He had a residency permit, but was not allowed to leave Switzerland and his family were not able to visit him.

During the 18 months they were apart, Zoran's nine-year-old son and two daughters, aged 11 and 12, were growing up fast, and their father was becoming increasingly afraid that they would no longer recognise him.

Last July, Stojan returned to Pones to visit his family and check out the security situation back home.

By this time a market had been set up in the centre of Gjilan/Gnilane, where farmers from minority groups could sell their wares twice a week, under the watchful eyes of international police.

The Danish Refugee Council was providing transport to and from the market and isolated villages, including Pones. The K-For checkpoint at Pones had also been removed.

Abandoning asylum claim

Zoran decided to abandon his asylum claim and take advantage of the Federal Refugee Office's Voluntary Return Programme, which offers financial assistance to returning Kosovar ethnic minorities.

"I got a letter from Zurich," he says, "and they invited me to a meeting with the advice centre for returnees."

"They promised me that Serbs in Kosovo are now safe and that the Kosovo Liberation Army is not so active. They guaranteed my safety."

On the day of his return home, he bade his brother a tearful farewell at Zurich Airport.

As he waved goodbye, Zoran entertained a glimmer of hope that he might return to his former post as director of the local school, knowing that life would be very difficult for his family without an income.

But as he flew home, he put such worries to the back of his mind.

A broad smile crossed his face at the thought of embracing his wife and children - and putting his feet up once more on his own settee.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt

Key facts

3,200 members of Kosovar minority groups are currently seeking asylum in Switzerland.
189 of these are Serbs.
Only eight Serbs have gone home under the Voluntary Return Programme.
By May 2003, Kosovar minorities still in Switzerland will either be given asylum or forced to return home without financial help.

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In brief

A three-part series on the return home to Kosovo of Zoran Stojanovic, an ethnic Serb. He sought asylum in Switzerland, after escaping a revenge campaign by Albanian victims of Serb ethnic cleansing. Now the Swiss authorities have told him it is safe to return. But without work, it is going to be difficult to stay in Kosovo.

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