Kosovo Reckoning: `All we ever found inspiring comes from England'

GEZIM SALIHU is happy to talk for hours, by turns funny and thoughtful, but always animated and expansive. He talks with optimism about the future and with relish about the work required to re-build his country.

By his own admission he is a very different figure from the one who just three months ago was forced out of his Pristina home at gunpoint, helpless in the face of his family's need.

"It is a very bad feeling if your children ask for help and you can't help them," he said at the refugee reception centre in Leicester where he and his family now stay. "At that time my dignity was completely destroyed. I thought it was the end of my country, I thought I would never be back in Kosovo. I thought it was finished."

Today Gezim, 42, is one of the 151 Kosovar refugees taking the first repatriation flight home from Britain. His wife and three sons will stay behind until he can assess the situation in Pristina. But he will carry with him a debt of gratitude to Britain. "All of these countries, especially Britain, now want to help re-build Kosovo, to turn on the light again," he said.

He seems just the sort of person his country needs. Trained as a lawyer, he never got the chance to practice because some of his family had political affiliations that were frowned on by the Belgrade regime. Instead, he established a successful import/export business.

His first task on returning will be to establish how much of the business is left - he has heard different reports about the state of his home, office and warehouses. But even if it means starting from scratch, he appears unconcerned. As a refugee he has been far from idle. He has had lessons to improve his English, and made contact with firms in London and Manchester with a view to future deals.

His family has also been busy. The eldest son Genc, 18, was an emerging pop star in Kosovo before the war, and has booked studio time at a local youth centre to record somesongs before going home.

His brother, Barthyl, 13, spent the last three weeks of term at a local school and was surprised by the reaction. "All the kids seemed to know my name. They called me Bart and everywhere I went I heard `Hi!'. It was like being a bit of a celebrity," he said.

Gezim has missed the Kosovo summer and its mountains, but he is reluctant to complain. "I came here as nobody, as nothing," he said. "During this time I have got back my dignity and my love of life, so I will always feel good things about Britain."

Migjen Kujak, 36, will be on the same flight today and is delighted to be going back with his wife and baby daughter. As a former accountant with the state electricity company, he wants to play a direct role in turning Kosovo's lights back on.

The Kujak's have been living with Migjen's brother-in-law in London. Migjen said that he met with two surprises about Britain: the good weather and the friendly people. "I thought your people would be much colder and keep some kind of distance. But when we got to Leeds all the people at reception were so close to us, and women neighbours would give food and clothes for the baby. It was a very good surprise. I will certainly keep in touch with friends we have made here, and one day I would like to return. But this time only as a tourist."