Rallying around a goal

Kosovo, June 15, 2006

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nebil Mjeku (left, standing) with community group members on the snow-covered soccer field in Grabovc. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

Grabovc, Kosovo - The soccer field that lies on the outskirts of town, built by village residents and partially funded by Mercy Corps, might not seem that ambitious when compared to the roads, schools or other large projects being constructed in other parts of Kosovo.

Twenty-three year-old Nebil Mjeku is quick to acknowledge that his village's project seems small - but it isn't. The recent past has been extraordinarily cruel to Grabovc: seven summers ago, in the heartbreaking aftermath of the Kosovo War, villagers returned here to find every building but one burned to the ground. Literally nothing was left of their former lives except the clothes they wore and the few belongings they carried back with them. Families were isolated from former neighbors by unthinkable loss, grief and mistrust.

The questions that have dogged the people of Grabovc since the war are the same being asked in similar villages throughout Kosovo: how do we begin to heal? Where do we begin rebuilding our community?

Nebil Mjeku and other young members of his community dug deep down to find that answer, and are confident that it was the right one.

In order to grasp the significance of a small soccer field to the people of this area, you have to understand what happened on this very ground - to families including Nebil's - just seven years ago.

The day that changed everything

One day in May 1999, dozens of families here opened the doors of their homes to a nightmare: gun-brandishing Serb militiamen were in the streets, barking at residents that they had five minutes to leave their house or else be killed. Faced with an unimaginable choice, families rushed to gather what belongings they could before joining their neighbors on the pocked dirt road that wound through their village.

As the militia set fire to houses, killed the livestock and murdered 24 people who refused - or were unable to - to leave their homes, the nearly 1000 ethnic Albanian inhabitants of Grabovc were forcibly marched in front of tanks and armored vehicles. They had no idea where they were headed. As the road ended and villagers were forced to clamber over rocky hills, Serb snipers took potshots at fleeing children and families. At least one child, a ten year-old girl, was killed by heartless gunfire.

Several hours later, the people of Grabovc arrived at a large open space near Kosovo's main airport, where thousands of other families were gathered. In this place everyone was systematically searched, and then his or her identification cards were taken and burned by militiamen intent on destroying their identities. Families were then forced to pay random, steep prices to board a bus for the Albanian border. Those who couldn't pay were gunned down.

And so, one day in May 1999, the Mjeku family and their neighbors were taken far from their home and made to cross the border into Albania to suddenly live as refugees. They crammed into ramshackle tent cities to live with other families whose only common bond was the fact they were ethnic Albanians and victims of a now infamous strategy: ethnic cleansing.

Fortunately, their displacement in Albania was short-lived; by July, a multinational military force had driven the Serb armies from Kosovo. People from hundreds of villages including Grabovc straggled home, unsure of what they'd find once they arrived.

It was much worse than they even imagined.

Starting small

How do you start rebuilding when there's nothing left?

For hundreds of devastated villages including Grabovc, humanitarian organizations intent on restoring post-war Kosovo rushed in to fill the void. While these efforts admirably rebuilt houses, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure, they left one glaring need: the restoration of community spirit and cooperation.

Mercy Corps, which has helped vulnerable families in Kosovo since 1993, came up with an innovative solution to help communities heal: the Municipal Infrastructure Support Initiative (MISI) program. Since 2003, MISI has supported returnee communities such as Grabovc through grants that support civic improvements.

The MISI program encourages neighbors to convene and discuss their community's most pressing needs. For example, in one nearby town, the community council decided to build sidewalks along a busy road after a young girl was killed by a speeding car. When villagers decide on a project to pursue, Mercy Corps works with the community to determine how project costs will be divided between the beneficiaries and the agency. This process takes place over several meetings held in the village and often lasts several months.

Mercy Corps always requires an in-kind contribution of money, labor or materials from the community. This was another reason that the people of Grabovc decided on a soccer field.

"It was what we felt we could raise money for at the time," Nebil Mjeku said.

Grabovc is one of the poorer villages in the area, situated in the midst of vast, despoiled coal strip mines that affect a grey, polluted landscape. It's almost ten miles to the nearest city down a muddy road along which a car can't travel more than ten miles per hour. As a result, the village is isolated from the very limited economic opportunities that this part of Kosovo has to offer.

Still, Nebil Mjeku and other members of the community council wanted to do something, however small, to build pride in their community and get the people of Grabovc working together again.

Joining together again

The idea for the soccer field came from a simpler, happier time in Nebil Mjeku's life: the days he spent playing soccer and other games on the school playground. He remembered the friends he'd made through teamwork, and inspiration struck.

"We decided on a soccer field because the local school didn't have one anymore, not since before the war," Mjeku explained. "We also thought that it could serve the other villages around here, not just Grabovc."

Indeed, since the soccer field was completed in August 2005, the village has held two sports tournaments for the area. The last event brought in 30 teams from surrounding villages, as well as throngs of spectators. It was one of the biggest gatherings of neighbors around here since the war ended.

With the success of these recent tournaments, Mjeku has an idea on how to continue much-needed village improvements: Grabovc will collect small entry fees from each team that participates in future tournaments. The community council plans to undertake more sweeping infrastructure projects, such as asphalting the road and installing a community-wide water system, with the new funds they'll receive.

"Since beginning our work alongside Mercy Corps, we've become a much more tightly knit community," Mjeku makes clear. "Now we feel like we can accomplish our goals."