The following article was published on Kosovo 2.0 on April 29th 2015: http://www.kosovotwopointzero.com/en/article/1641/kosovars-in-konik-where-is-home
Montenegro is currently home for around 16,000 refugees from the 1990 wars in the former Yugoslavia. Displaced Bosnians, Serbs and Croats are spread out in camps throughout the small country. Last year I read an article about Konik, a camp that currently houses around 1500 ethnic Roma who fled Kosovo during the 1999 war. Situated near a garbage dump on the outskirts of Podgorica, residents have been in a state of limbo for fifteen years, in increasingly deteriorating conditions. In 2012, a fire and subsequent flood made conditions even more appalling, leaving over 800 refugees homeless. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has described conditions at the camp as being “inhumane and hazardous,” and recommended the swift closure of the camp. Improving the situation of refugees is currently a key issue for Montenegro’s possible ascension into the European Union.
Now the Montenegrin government wants refugees to sort out their citizenship. They must apply for foreign residency status in Montenegro, go back to Kosovo, or remain as illegal residents devoid of any health, education or economic assistance. However, for many the options are not so simple. Many of the refugees lack their residency documents from Kosovo, a requirement to apply for permanent residence in Montenegro. For a family to return to Kosovo to apply for passports and the necessary documents would require hundreds of Euros, far more than most currently have. Their current non-resident status means finding legal work is impossible, making it difficult to even imagine saving enough money to return to Kosovo.
I spent a few days at Konik because I wanted to see the situation there for myself. The camp is located far outside the city center in an area already populated by Roma from Montenegro. While the main area of the camp is located in a field near the garbage dump, a secondary camp was set up with temporary metal structures, to house those who lost their homes during the 2012 fire. Two large buildings were under construction, the site of apartments meant to re-house many of those living in subpar conditions. This has been a point of contention with the Montenegrin government, that building permanent structures at the site of the current camp only reinforces the community’s already isolated position. The European Commission on Racism and Intolerance has also stressed that while measures like these are positive, they should be seen as only a temporary solution to this long term issue.
I am always taken by the way people are able to adapt to their situations, to make a home in a place that is not their own, to preserve some sense of normalcy in their lives. Walking around this area of the camp I saw people generally going about life as everyone else does. Children were hurrying off to school, women were cooking or hanging clothes to dry, men were fixing bicycles or chatting before they headed off to try and find work. People were a bit weary at first with a stranger walking around with cameras, and I was told I couldn’t take photos here. It’s sometimes hard to get over the initial feeling of being an intruder in these situations. Luckily I ended up talking with Rame Morina, a 47-year-old man with seven children. Rame and his family are lucky enough to have their passports from Kosovo, and can apply for Montenegrin citizenship if they wish. Rame and his wife want to return to Kosovo because it’s where their roots are. “Kosovo is where my father was born, and my grandfather, it’s home,” he said.
However, Rame’s children feel differently about their sense of home. Three of them were born in Kosovo, but moved with their family when they were still very young. The other four children were born in the camp in Montenegro. Rame said they don’t feel a connection to Kosovo, having grown up in the camp. If Rame returned to Kosovo his family would receive housing under a relocation deal. However, since his children feel no connection there he is unsure of what to do, stay to make his children happy or return to where he feels his roots are. Since Montenegro does not allow dual citizenship, it’s a choice he cannot take lightly.
Later I met 18-year-old Serijon Boneshta outside a mosque built in the camp. Serijon is soft-spoken, intelligent and speaks English and a number of other languages, many acquired from watching movies or TV shows. He was born in Gjakova in Kosovo, but moved to the camp when he was two years old. He and his family returned to get their passports in Kosovo and he currently has residency in Montenegro. Like Rame’s children, Serijon feels at home in Montenegro and mentioned a lack of connection to Kosovo. “I was born in Kosovo and yet I feel like I was born here.”
Differing ideas of home were a common theme amongst the people I spoke with at the camp. For many of the residents in Konik, home isn’t necessarily the place on their passport, where they are now or where they used to be. Young people have grown up in shacks on the outskirts of a city, yet feel it is more of a home than where their parents tell them they have roots. Others have spent close to two decades here, yet long to go back to their own country, hoping for better opportunity there. For those without documents, the decision is largely out of their control.
When I told people I had visited a camp with refugees from Kosovo, I got some strange looks. Hadn’t that war ended 15 years ago? The said thing is, that it did. Konik and other camps like it are reminders of the long-term effects war can have on a population. I thought of the Syrian refugees I visited last year, the children who had spent three years in a camp meant to house them for six months. Where will they feel at home in 10 more years? Ongoing wars displace more and more people every year. It’s nice to think that eventually it all ends and people can go back home. The reality seems to be that people can be stuck in limbo long after the last bomb is dropped.