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Refugees Ponder Returning to Kosovo

June 10, 1999

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) _ Although she doesn’t know when she’ll be allowed to return to Kosovo, refugee Fatimire Zhubi knows what she’ll do when she arrives: get down to work.

``I don’t know how they’re going to organize it all,″ Zhubi, a pediatrician, said during a pause from examining squirming children in a refugee camp clinic. ``But we’ll start working as soon as we can.″

She and other ethnic Albanian refugees know that the challenge will be immense to rebuild their homeland, poor and scarred by fighting even before NATO started bombing in March and the worst of the ethnic purges began.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that at least 350,000 houses in Kosovo have been seriously damaged. The U.N. Children’s Fund says massive damage was inflicted on hospitals, clinics and schools. Doctors, nurses and teachers are in severely short supply.

An international peacekeeping force was marshaling to go into Kosovo on Thursday as Yugoslavia began withdrawing troops and NATO suspended its bombing campaign. Many refugees are eager to be right behind, to start reconstructing their land and their lives as quickly as possible.

``It doesn’t matter that I don’t have a home,″ said Sabri Ukzmalji, a mason whose skills will be in great demand.

``I want to go back home, because home is better,″ echoed Arif, his gap-toothed 10-year-old son.

But Ukzmalji’s wife, Nexhmia, was more cautious _ worried about how she would care for their five children, ages 2 to 19, without a roof over their heads or sure access to food and water.

Despite the massive reconstruction Kosovo requires, homes can be repaired, hospitals restaffed. Teachers can hold class in tents if need be. But rebuilding a sense of security and trust will be much harder.

Some of Kosovo’s Serbs, who made up just 10 percent of the prewar population of 2.1 million, already are reported to be moving out of Kosovo. Those who remain face suspicion at best, vengeance at worst. Nexhmia Ukzmalji blames all Serbs for Kosovo’s woes.

``I would never go back and live with them after what they did to us,″ she said. ``I’d rather stay in this (refugee camp) tent forever than go back and live with them.″

The United Nations and other international agencies say their first priorities will be food, water and housing. Tents will be set up for some returning refugees. Money has been earmarked to repair at least one room in each of thousands of damaged houses so that families have a warm haven in the coming winter.

A NATO source said peacekeepers may be put to work repairing homes. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that NATO bombs caused some of the damage, but said Yugoslav troops bore most of the blame.

Selvete Krasniqi, who fled Kosovo three weeks ago, is also eager to get back to her work _ teaching chemistry. When asked if she would return to reopen schools, she answered quickly and simply: ``Yes, with pleasure.″

After housing and food comes medical care, said Zhubi, the pediatrician, who said she would go back ``as fast as I can, as soon as I can. There’s a lot of need for doctors, a lot of need.″

Zhubi and her husband, also a doctor, left two months ago after being told they weren’t needed at their suburban Pristina clinic because they were ethnic Albanians. Her husband was beaten.

``My house was burned. I have no home to go back to. But I have the soil,″ she said. ``It’s better there than here _ just the feeling of being home.″

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