Albanian Daily News
Property disputes turn Kosovo into no man's land

Albanian Economic Tribune - Dec 30, 1999

PRISHTINA - A stark warning scratched into the black paint of a broken security door awaits anyone who tries to evict Bekim Arifi and his family again.

Their own home, a two-room farmhouse on a Kosovo hilltop several kilometres from here, was burned by Serbian gunmen last spring, so the Arifis became squatters in a middle-class Serbian family’s apartment in this provincial capital.

The terse notice on the metal door is written in Albanian, starting with the letters UCK, the Albanian-language initials of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). In case that message isn’t clear enough, it adds: "Do not touch."

Those words appeared sometime after Bina Djukic locked the door and hurried down the stairs four months ago, in the panic that struck Serbs as their security forces retreated from Kosovo.

A poorly equipped and understaffed UN civilian administration is trying to build a multiethnic democracy, atop Kosovo’s ruins. The best weapon that chief UN civilian administrator Bernard Kouchner is likely to have is the justice system that his officials are still working to set up.

Leopold von Carlowitz, an aristocratic German lawyer, is working to create a tribunal that will try to resolve the thousands of property disputes born of the war in Kosovo. He has no illusions about the many and complex problems involved - or about how dangerous Kosovo will be if disputes over who owns various pieces of it are left to fester.

"We all know that only with a sound solution of the property situation in this country will we have lasting peace here," Von Carlowitz said in an interview. "There is no question about that."

One of Djukic’s neighbors, Dragica Grubanovic, also fled Kosovo and knows the ethnic Albanian man who took over her apartment only by his voice. She has called him several times, hoping he would agree to buy it, but he has refused. He has since stopped answering the phone.

Grubanovic, would be happy to forget Kosovo and stay in Belgrade. She has found an ethnic Albanian man in Belgrade interested in buying her three-bedroom apartment, but he wants the current occupants evicted first. And after what the Serbs did in Kosovo, ethnic Albanians are in no hurry to give up their new homes.

It was after ethnic Albanian thugs began pounding on Serbs’ doors and threatening trouble if they didn’t leave that Djukic took her family to her father’s home in the Prishtina suburb of Kosovo Polje, hoping things would improve. Finally, she gave up and caught a Belgrade-bound train.

New occupant Arifi, 22, denies - despite the initials on the door - that he served in the KLA. Among those sharing the apartment is Arifi’s brother Agim, 20, who says he wasn’t a KLA member either. Bedrie, Arifi’s wife, and his younger sisters, Naile, 11, and Elhame, 17, also moved into the Djukic apartment after returning from Albania, where they were refugees after Serbs expelled them from Kosovo during NATO air attacks.

UN staff have drafted a regulation that would create an independent Housing and Property Claims Tribunal to settle disputes over such strictly private, noncommercial property. The tribunal would have two foreign members and one local member. These three individuals would have the power to make legally binding decisions, but UN staff also would work to get disputes settled out of court - for instance, by finding people new homes.

Kouchner needs approval from UN headquarters before he can sign the regulation to create the tribunal, and UN experts are only beginning to sort through "incredibly complicated," sometimes conflicting regulations and traditions to decide which ones the tribunal would respect.

"This is very dangerous territory on which we’re moving," Von Carlowitz cautioned.

Djukic has called Arifi several times and tried to persuade him to buy the apartment, which is now worth about $45,000. But Arifi insists that he is penniless, yet he has refused to move out and allow Djukic to sell her home to someone else.

About 15 miles south of Prishtina, beside a chestnut tree on a hilltop in the village of Labljane, the Arifis’ small house is a burned-out ruin, and everything they owned is gone. That is why the Arifis hope the Serbs who left Kosovo never return.

"We wouldn’t like to lay our eyes on them again - ever," said Bedrie, Arifi’s wife. "They killed kids in their mothers’ laps."

Then her brother-in-law Agim jumped in: "If they come back, there will be trouble." (Los Angeles Times)

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