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Optimism and fear combine among returning Kosovars

Kosovar refugees return to their plundered home

(Keystone)

Throughout June and July ethnic Albanians who sought shelter in Switzerland during the crisis in Kosovo will be returning home. The deadline set by the Swiss government on Wednesday for most to leave has expired.

There is a two-month extension for families with school age children.

No one is sure exactly how many ethnic Albanians will be returning. At least 30,000 have already left voluntarily, taking advantage of the Swiss government's offer of financial help if they returned home of their own free will.

But officials at the Swiss federal office for refugees estimate that at least 10,000 will be expected to leave, many in the course of the next few weeks.

Not everyone is reluctant to return home though; in fact many are eager, and are busy preparing themselves as best they can for what is certain to be a difficult homecoming.

At Berne's Albanian centre, young Kosovars are taking courses in computing and English, in the hope of getting a headstart when they get home.

"Many of them are looking forward to going home," said Beznik Zamai, the computer teacher, "they are isolated here, and they feel they will be able to start their lives again in Kosovo. But they are also scared of the conditions there, they wonder how they will live, and they are concerned about the long-term future of Kosovo."

"I know it will be difficult," agrees Alban, in a break from his class, "but I am a medical student and my country needs good doctors. So I want to go back and finish my studies so I can do something for my country."

Meanwhile across the hall another group of young ethnic Albanians is learning basic English. This after all is the language of Kfor, and of the international aid agencies present in Kosovo.

"I was a student of economics until last year," said Faeek, "and now I want to take that up again, but it won't be easy. All my family is in Kosovo, but our house is destroyed, so they are living in a tent. But I can't stay in Switzerland, there's no future for me here. What worries me most is that the future of Kosovo itself is so uncertain, we don't have any official status."

Other students though are putting their faith in the international military presence in Kosovo. "I really think things will improve in Kosovo" said 19 year old Naseeba, "I'm pleased the Americans and the British and the Germans are there; I trust them and I think things can only get better."

But Alban, Faeek and Naseeba are all young, and single. For families with children the prospect of returning to Kosovo is much more daunting. "I don't see how we can possibly return now," said Gani Jupa.

"I have three young children and our village is on the border with Albania, where there are many mines. And our house is burnt, I just don't know how I can take my children back to that," Jupa said.

Over the next few weeks though, families with children will be expected to return too, despite the undoubtedly difficult situation at home.

The Swiss government has said that it will consider exceptions on an individual basis, but a destroyed house or the presence of mines are not likely to be reasons for allowing people to stay.

A common concern among all returnees, whether reluctant or hopeful, is the future status of Kosovo. Despite the conflict of last year, and the intervention by Nato, the province is still part of Serbia and Slobodan Milosevic is still in power in Belgrade.

"This is what everyone is worried about," said Stefan Enggist, director of the Albanian centre. "It's true that Switzerland and other countries have put in a lot of effort for the short term, trying to rebuild houses and so on, but the international community is not ready to address the question of the long-term future of Kosovo. And I think until that question is solved there will be no long-term investment in Kosovo by big business and banks and so on."

"This is really the big question," he continued, "what happens to Kosovo, and to all these people who have returned home, when the military and the international community withdraw? When that happens, then we will see the true reality of the situation."

by Imogen Foulkes

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