Kosovo: the villagers' story

This is Kosovo, 12 months on, a country and a people preparing to face the anniversary of the 78-day Nato bombing campaign. Here, in Nagavc, each family will remember its own private tragedies: the day relatives were massacred by paramilitaries, the day homes were destroyed, the day they were forced into exile - and the day they returned to a village that had been reduced to a bomb site.
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In the classroom of the village school a young boy with a thatch of mousey hair had stood up to recite a poem which he had clearly committed to memory. His classmates were not exactly enthralled but they were quiet as he hurried through his words, their seven-year-old faces bright and content. There were exercise books on the desks in front of them, and though they were wearing their coats, a wood-burning stove in the corner of the room took the edge off the morning chill. With a few changes the classroom could have been anywhere. But in the school here in Nagavc, an old farming community tucked away in the hills near Prizren in south-west Kosovo, there is much to be discovered in the detail.

In the classroom of the village school a young boy with a thatch of mousey hair had stood up to recite a poem which he had clearly committed to memory. His classmates were not exactly enthralled but they were quiet as he hurried through his words, their seven-year-old faces bright and content. There were exercise books on the desks in front of them, and though they were wearing their coats, a wood-burning stove in the corner of the room took the edge off the morning chill. With a few changes the classroom could have been anywhere. But in the school here in Nagavc, an old farming community tucked away in the hills near Prizren in south-west Kosovo, there is much to be discovered in the detail.

Should you stop to admire the pupils' drawings pinned to the wall in the school entrance, you would notice, among the pencil sketches of houses and flowers, a drawing of a tank with its short gun barrel jutting out and a soldier wearing an unmistakable pudding-basin helmet. Standing in the school yard and looking at the outside of the building, you would see beneath the fresh coat of clean white paint the places where half-a-dozen bullet holes had been filled in. And should you have been able to understand the words of the little boy with the poem forever ingrained on his mind, you would have heard him remember his grandfather, loved and now gone, killed by the Serbs.

This is Kosovo, 12 months on, a country and a people preparing to face the anniversary of a 78-day Nato bombing campaign aimed - or so the politicians who ordered it claimed - at helping the Kosovar Albanian population, such as the people of Nagavc. In many respects it is an artificial anniversary. The thousands who suffered in the dark days of last spring, when years of tension and oppression in Kosovo finally exploded on an unprecedented scale, will remember and mark their own private tragedies; the day family members were massacred by paramilitaries who casually discarded the bodies, the day homes were destroyed, the day they were forced into exile from a place in which they had lived for countless generations.

But in one respect tomorrow's anniversary is crucial. For it marks the moment when, in the early hours of 24 March last year, as Nato bombers began dropping their laser-guided ordnance on targets near Belgrade, the Western powers proclaimed that the Kosovar Albanians were no longer struggling alone. It marks the moment when, after months of threat and diplomatic intervention, the West showed that it was prepared to use its military hardware. It marks the moment when we said we would help.

And initially at least, one might think that this promise has been honoured in Nagavc, which was largely destroyed by bombers (assumed by the villagers to have been Serb planes, though they could equally have been Nato fighters hunting Serb positions) and whose population was killed or else driven out in retaliation for the Nato strikes. Next to the unmetalled track that twists up the valley into the village, there is a large white sign that informs all who pass of the assistance that has been showered on Nagavc by the German government. The sign is close to the village's silver mosque - unrepaired after being destroyed by a Serb shell, and now taken over by pigeons - in the graveyard from which KFor peace-keeping soldiers cleared a landmine left by paramilitaries.

And in the school, too, there are signs. There are new windows, provided by a German children's charity which has stuck its logo in a prominent position on one of the panes. There are five new desks bought by the charity too; the same organisation also provided materials to paint the outside of the school and the cement that was used to fill in the bullet holes.

"We are grateful for all the help we have received. I would like to thank that charity," said Gani Elshani, 39, the headteacher, who for three weeks last September held lessons in the schoolyard as the classrooms were being redecorated.

Mr Elshani is a friendly man. He is polite, grateful for the assistance he has received, but it is obvious that for all the stickers stuck in windows, for all the signs erected, he and his fellow teacher, Safet Gashi, are struggling to provide the children with the education they would wish. "We don't have enough books," he said. "There are no toilets, the schoolyard needs repairing. We were promised sporting equipment but we have none."

In these circumstances the teachers struggle to help children traumatised by their experiences. Experts from Macedonia visited briefly and told them that it was better for the children - who witnessed more horror in a few days last year than most people experience in a lifetime - to express their fears than to bottle them up. They told them it was good for the children to recite their poems and to make their drawings. Then the experts left.

Away from the school things are worse. When The Independent first visited Nagavc last summer, three weeks after Nato and the Russians had entered Kosovo, the village was literally a bomb site. Seven bombs dropped on a run along the centre of the village had wrecked the majority of the houses, leaving no more than 20 of the 120 or so properties in any real habitable state. Those villagers returning after three months exile in refugee camps in northern Albania found virtually nothing. Their homes were ruined, the year's crops had all but been wiped out and they were living off food handouts from the same charities that provided them with tents in which to sleep. All they really had was the euphoria of being home.

This week, returning to Nagavc, it is clear that very little real progress had been made restoring the infrastructure of the village. The houses that were damaged have received only the most basic of repairs and while people no longer sleep in tents, entire families are still squeezed into one or two rooms.

"We are trying to get back to normal but it is hard," said Shpresa Krasniqi, a teacher in a local school. "One problem is that we have so little room. There are seven of us in one room and when you want to be on your own you cannot."

Everyone is the same. Xhevdet Krasniqi, who is one of many in the village to share this family name, said his family of seven were forced to spend what felt like the entire winter in one room. At times the temperature fell to minus 30C and the room in which he and his family huddled together was the only one where the inside of the windows were not solid with ice.

Even now the electricity supply is scant - two hours on, six hours off. (On Millennium Eve, there was a power cut that lasted all night).

Mr Krasniqi, 29, who works as a teacher and a journalist for a local paper, also complains that the cost of living has soared. His teacher's salary - now paid by the United Nations Mission In Kosovo (UNMIK) is just 220DM (£70) a month. "There are seven people who have to survive off my salary. It is not enough. But what about those people who do not work?" he asks.

The lack of work is a returning theme. People are desperate to rebuild but they say they cannot afford the basic materials they require. Instead they make do as they can: a piece of timber holds up a stairway, a torn piece of thin blanket stretches over a window frame.

In the fields it is no better. Like much of Kosovo, Nagavc depends on agriculture for its survival. But the farmers who traditionally took their harvests of tomatoes, grapes and potatoes into the market at Prizren fear that this year they will have very little to sell. Though the farmers were given a small supply of seeds to plant, they have little fertiliser, and where once they had tractors to help in the fields, most work is now done by hand. They expect only a small harvest.

"We are not seeing a big future," said Bislim Gashi, whose father was once one of the village's most prosperous farmers. "We are hoping for some work. We need work in the village. This is a poor village compared to others around here. The soil is not so good and yet so many people depend on it."

It is wrong to assume the people of Nagavc do nothing but complain. The villagers are proud and generous with the little they have, their homes are spotlessly clean. Even the graffiti sprayed on to one of the walls translates as "Long live Nato". But the villagers here realise they face a struggle. Although they now have peace, although they are no longer persecuted by the Serbs, in practical terms it is hard to see how their lives are better. The euphoria so apparent last summer has gone.

Shpresa Krasniqi spoke for the village when she explained how she and her family remember the events of last year on a daily basis and how upset it makes them. "It is not just the children, but the big ones," she said. "When we recall what happened there are tears... silently."

Mrs Krasniqi and the others are aware of tomorrow's anniversary. They are aware that 24 March was the start of a bombing campaign during which the West spent twice as much each day as it has committed to Kosovo for this entire year. They are aware of what that campaign signified and of the promises that were made.

It is unlikely that the people of Nagavc will be celebrating.

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