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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Serbian Refugees Await Kosovo Talks

BELGRADE -- Zarko Zivaljevic, a Serbian refugee from Kosovo, is eagerly awaiting a new round of talks this week on the contested province's future. He hopes it will bring him and his family a step toward closure in an ordeal that has left them in limbo.

But whatever the outcome, Zivaljevic, 52, says he is doubtful that he will ever be able to reclaim the life he had before he fled Kosovo in 1999, when Serbian troops were forced out by a NATO air war begun to stop Belgrade's crackdown on separatists.

"We will pay the price, we always do," he said.

Zivaljevic, from Pec in western Kosovo, left with his two brothers, their parents, wives and children, along with about 200,000 other Serbs. A few returned later, but most settled in central Serbia with relatives or in refugee camps.

Eight years later, life remains grim. The Zivaljevic family, which had a farm on the outskirts of Pec and an apartment in town, lives in refugee barracks in a Belgrade suburb.

They say their house in Pec is now inhabited by an ethnic Albanian family. Efforts to reclaim the property have failed. "I would go back right away," Zarko says. "But I can't."

They now live in old, humid concrete buildings that have running water but no proper bathrooms. Makeshift electricity cables hang from the ceilings.

"I had a house and land, and look where I live now," Zivaljevic says. "It is the ordinary people that suffer, it is so in every war."

The status of the Kosovo refugees, or the internally displaced as they are officially called, has been one of the main issues in the Serb-Albanian talks. Belgrade has demanded they be allowed to return as part of the final settlement.

Kosovo is still part of Serbia, although it has been run by the United Nations and NATO since 1999, and it is dominated by independence-seeking ethnic Albanians. The province's Serbs live in isolated enclaves guarded by NATO troops.

Vlajinka Ilic, from the eastern Kosovo town of Kosovska Kamenica, says, "My heart aches when I think of what I left behind."

A yearlong round of UN-mediated status talks had failed to resolve the status dispute last year, and a new round of talks was called recently after Russia rejected a Western-backed plan granting supervised independence to the province.

The United States and the European Union have supported the plan by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, saying it was the best solution and warning that further delays could lead to renewed tensions. Russia, however, backed Serbia in its rejection of the plan.

The refugees at the camp said they were waiting to see what would happen at negotiations set to resume Aug. 30 in Vienna.

When asked about their life in Kosovo, refugees said they had good relations with their ethnic Albanian neighbors, and blamed the war on extremists on both sides.

"We are normal people, we can live normally anywhere, only if they'd let us," says Milenko Zivaljevic, Zarko's older brother.