A liberating chain

Kosovo, April 21, 2006

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mejka Asllani, 56, is a small dairy farmer in Reqane, Kosovo, who's benefiting from Mercy Corps' Agricultural Support for IDP Returnees program. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Seid Abazi's veterinary pharmacy helps farmers take good care of their livestock. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

Reqane, Kosovo - What do you get when you put together a dairy owner, a veterinary pharmacist and a woman with a cow? A new economy that works.

In the craggy yet verdant town of Reqane, Kosovo, a determined group of citizens is focusing on not only helping one another succeed, but also bringing the quality of their agricultural products to national attention - and beyond. Mercy Corps is helping them through grants of livestock and equipment, technical assistance and training.

In less than two years, the citizens of Reqane have taken this assistance and forged it into an agricultural supply chain with strong links. Today, they're finding it's a chain that not only binds them together, but also frees them all.

The chain starts with hard-working people like 56 year-old Mejka Asllani. A tiny woman with a care-worn face, she is obviously proud of the cow provided to her through Mercy Corps' Agricultural Support for Internally-Displaced (IDP) Returnees program. Even though her life has improved over the last couple of years, she takes nothing for granted.

Like every one of her neighbors, Asllani remembers the day she returned to Reqane to find her home burned and livestock stolen. She knows what it's like to start over.

The end of everything they'd known

The echoes of war still resound across Kosovo in towns like Reqane. Abandoned husks of what were once houses stand sentry to remind families of that terrible time. And, at this very moment, negotiations are underway that will determine the future of Kosovo - whether this tiny province of Albanians and Serbs will achieve independence or remain a part of Serbia and Montenegro.

Once, life in Kosovo was fairly predictable. As citizens of Yugoslavia, Kosovars enjoyed a meager but guaranteed income in the fields and factories of a controlled socialist economy. Then it all changed: the rise of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia proved disastrous for Kosovo's economy. Ethnic and political tensions led to the shutdown of schools, hospitals and factories throughout Kosovo by the former Yugoslav government, which was still in control of Kosovo. The Milosevic regime imposed an apartheid-like system on Kosovo, driving the majority ethnic Albanian population deeper and deeper into poverty.

In 1999, Milosevic sent his army into Kosovo under the pretense of rooting out insurgents. Tens of thousands of homes were burned, and an estimated 700,000 ethnic Albanians driven from their homes. More than 12,000 died during just a few weeks of fighting, which ended only when a NATO-led military campaign forced Serbian military units from Kosovo.

Today there are still foreign peacekeepers in Kosovo; you can't travel far on a main road without seeing a tank or other military vehicle. Uncertainty is palpable, and progress is relative. Families that were once displaced by the violence have, for the most part, returned to their villages and rebuilt their homes, but have no jobs or businesses to sustain them. In some cities, the unemployment rate hovers around 80%.

The people of Reqane are bent on changing that.

A new beginning

Here, change starts small: Mejka Asllani, a widow with a single cow, is an integral part of the shift to an agricultural economy.

Every morning, Asllani ventures into the small stable under her modest brick and stucco house to milk the cow. She sells the milk to a small dairy up the hill operated by Mr. Ramo Sagdati, another Mercy Corps beneficiary.

"The milk I sell each day is helping me survive," Asllani says. "I have no words to explain my gratitude."

Sagdati buys milk from her and more than 30 other local farmers on a daily basis, helping provide steady income to families in Reqane and 13 nearby villages. He has been involved in the dairy business since shortly after the war ended in 1999. So far, he's sold the collected milk to larger dairies; but, today, Sagdati has a plan that will benefit farmers in Reqane even more.

"I want to process milk and make both yogurt and cheese here," he explains. "I intend to produce healthy, organic pure milk products free of additives. There's a market out there for this kind of product, and I can pass the profit on to my suppliers by giving them more for their milk."

To help establish this value-added business, Mercy Corps helped Sagdati purchase a milk skimmer and several storage tanks. Sagdati demonstrated commitment to his vision by investing in a pasteurizer and packaging machine.

"I have a firm belief that I'm going to succeed - and farmers in the Jupa Valley will succeed as well," he affirms. "I consider myself a part of the Mercy Corps family."

A taste of the mountains

Great cheese starts with great milk. And great milk comes from the herbs, grasses and other forages eaten by livestock.

Mr. Rashid Ramo heads the dairy farmer's association that supplies milk to Sagdati. They're currently working to implement larger-scale production of Sharri cheese, a special variety that's found only in these mountains.

"The Sharri cheese is different because the region is naturally rich in unique herbs and aromatic plants," Ramo explains. "It results in a much richer, better-tasting milk."

Keeping the milk production flowing during winter months has traditionally been a challenge for the area's dairy farmers. From October to March, snow often blankets Reqane's grassy slopes and keeps cattle from grazing.

Mercy Corps stepped in to make sure that availability of quality fodder would not be a weak link in the supply chain. The agency helped the farmer's association purchase two side mowers for making hay quickly. The association cuts the hay and provides it to member farmers throughout the long, cold winter.

"Mercy Corps is the only association that has assisted us," Ramo said. "Now, more farmers are interested in joining us and becoming part of this growing local economy. We expect to see a lot of great work and growth this spring."

Indeed, a German group that recently visited the area has indicated interest in exporting Sharri cheese to their country. That's just the kind of recognition the people of Reqane have been hoping for.

Healthy growth

Seid Abazi stands quietly behind the scenes of Reqane's economic transformation, but, like his fellow townspeople, is playing an important role.

Abazi runs the local agricultural pharmacy in the town's quaint central district. Before the pharmacy recently opened, farmers had to go all the way to Prizren - nearly an hour away over a treacherous mountain road - to get supplies to care for their livestock. Now farmers from the surrounding area, which contains about 20,000 people, can come here to meet their needs and receive valuable advice.

Mercy Corps helped Abazi and a local veterinarian renovate the store space, and purchase the initial inventory and medications and other supplies. The agency also provided essential veterinary equipment for the veterinarian's field visits.

"We do mainly small interventions in the villages around here," Abazi explains. "The main problem right now is hygiene in the barns, which can create disease and is certainly bad for the milk. If we could ensure consistent health standards for livestock, this region and its economy could flourish."

Abazi realizes everyone is linked to Reqane's future goals and hopes.

"The local farmers' goals are related directly to mine. I am working to help them succeed," Abazi says. "Together, with Mercy Corps as our partner, we're building something that will serve and transform the whole area."