It is a cold, rainy afternoon in the village of Bilinicë, Gjilan, where men from the six remaining families have gathered to discuss a decision which most of them have already taken. They have decided to leave the village and flee Kosovo. They show the papers they have received, namely permits to pass through Serbia, most of which are stamped with a short expiration date.
In the midst of them is the village Imam, Artan Asllani, who is sitting totally silent until the moment when they tell him not to come and open the mosque, since there will not be any mosque-goers there anymore.
In his last prayer ritual, the Imam declaims more loudly than usual and the echo of Muslim prayer resonates in the mountains bordering Serbia. He feels that there will no longer be anybody in this village to listen to him.
Seemingly, the same thing is happening to the village school which is now down to its last eleven pupils.
Between the depth of concern and lost hope, the decision for them seems difficult but irreversible.
Fitim Rashiti has been to Hungary before, but he is going to try to cross its borders once again. “We cannot survive here. Poverty is forcing people to steal wood from the forest from their own brothers. The forest owner catches you cutting wood and kills you. If the police catch you, the fine is 1,000 euros. How can we afford to pay that sort of money? So it is better for me to go and die somewhere else rather than die here. “The leading politicians have provided luxury for themselves, but we don’t even have enough food,” he says.
Sitting in a corner of his leaky house, Fejzullah Xhemaili says that he would leave if he could. “I survive by cutting wood in the forest and I have been fined twice, six months detention each time. I even sold my only cow. Now I’m being sent to jail. I have asked them to put my wife and children in jail as well because I can’t provide for them. I cannot afford it, otherwise I would also leave”. On top of all this, his 13-year-old son has injured his leg and needs treatment abroad. The child was seriously injured while cutting wood in the forest with his father.
In the evening the only light visible in the whole deserted neighborhood will be from his house. The two-room half-destroyed house, with poverty present in every corner with its few pieces of furniture and cracked dishes, will continue to be filled by the worry of how to find bread for tomorrow. Nevertheless, Fejzullah is not going to leave the village.
This will mean he will become a resident of an all-but ghost village, which until recently had about 120 homes. And he has already started feeling the loneliness and seclusion.
Whilst in the Bilinicë village the last suitcases are being packed for departure, other suitcases are being unpacked in the village of Zallq, Istog. There, the first returnees from the last group of refugees who left look even more hopeless.
Kadri Hyseni has lost his job and almost everything he had. “I feel afraid and insecure. How can you live like this?” he asks.
Fear and insecurity is also what his Serb neighbors who have returned from Serbia feel. NebojsaDrljevic, who fled Kosovo immediately after the 1999 war, tells us about the difficult living conditions. “I don’t have a job, and my wife has no job either. In poverty and fear, that is how the six of us in the family live,” he told Radio Kosova.
Nobody has come from the Ministry which is led by their fellow villager, Deputy Minister for Returns QaushBalaj, to see these three realities affecting the returnees to this village. Balaj who is also Acting Minister of Return and Communities says he is unaware of the troubles the returnees in his village or in other locations are facing. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, which leads the repatriation process, has excluded from its care the latest group of returnees from this first exodus. Figures on the number of returnees are all that the Ministry can provide. This has made returnees even more hopeless.
Refugees and returnees amongst the Roma community have experienced even worse hardship. Fatmir Krasniqi, who has recently been returned from Germany to Fushë-Kosovë, says he has neither shelter nor food for his children. “No land, no house, no bread, nothing. We pick out bread from litter-bins. We, my wife and children, collect tin cans but we get nothing from them. My wife is epileptic and she often collapses in the street”, he says.
Nevertheless, the Interior Minister SkenderHyseni and Minister of Labour and Social Welfare ArbanAbrashi still talk about what they call “a manageable situation”.
According to the European Agency of Statistics (EUROSTAT), in 2014 alone, 37,900 Kosovars sought asylum in EU member countries. The Hungarian Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed to Radio Kosova by email that migrants from Kosovo still continued to cross its borders albeit at a lower rate. Figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicate that about 200,000 people have left Kosovo since 1999. According to the Kosovo Ministry of Return and Ministry of Internal Affairs, around 70,000 people have returned so far. However, data about all returnees and refugees are not yet available. Last year, the Government spent only 0.19 per cent of its overall budget in controlling illegal migration. European officials fear that visa liberalisation will cause even larger waves of migration if the present situation persists. Samuel Zbogar, Head of the EU Kosovo Office, says that local authorities must work harder to combat crime and corruption, as well as promote economic development. World Bank poverty generating indicators that foster migration, however, remain unchanged.
European Union member states continue to heartlessly and stringently return Kosovo refugees while strengthening their border controls. In the first quarter this year, 2,400 people have been sent back, most of whom had left recently. Kosovo is the only country in the Balkans which still has not been included in the EU visa liberalisation process. However, according to GojartKrasniqi from MiradiaEpërme village near FushëKosovë, the assertion that you can live in Kosovo does not ring true. He was deported back from Germany a few days ago and once again has fallen into deep despair. The 22-year-old says he will leave again. According to him, corruption is at the root of everything in Kosovo. In immigration records he will continue being an illegal migrant.
“No, I have no hope here. You can’t live properly here, except through theft and corruption,” he says.
After having spent hard days and nights at borders, in mountains, and shelters, and often penniless after selling all their property, those who tried to leave hoping to gain a more dignified life, are returning even more broken. Migrants and returnees regardless of ethnicity speak the same language of poverty and insecurity, because the reality of Kosovo has offered them only the right to hopelessness and despair for a long time to come.