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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Refugees Stream Into Albanian Border Town

April 01, 1999|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUKES, Albania — High on a mountain path, the cold night lighted by the glow of a full moon, a stretch of beaten earth is crammed with scores of farm carts shrouded with blankets and plastic sheeting like modern-day covered wagons. Almost the only sound is the pitiful wail of children crying.

This was the temporary home Wednesday night of part of the "ethnically cleansed" population of Kosovo.

It is a scene that has outraged those who are witnessing it, indignant that ethnic Albanian refugees continue to be pushed out of the war-torn Serbian province by the tens of thousands to this remote and mountainous area where there is little food, almost no shelter and not enough clean water.

Six thousand more Kosovo Albanians arrived here Wednesday, added to the more than 85,000 who had arrived since Friday, said John Campbell of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Refugees also continued to stream unabated into Macedonia and Montenegro, fleeing from what U.S. and U.N. officials have described as a vicious campaign to change the demographic makeup of Kosovo by driving out ethnic Albanians.

As Campbell spoke, a new crisis had emerged at the Kukes border crossing because Albanian authorities had decided that they must register each new refugee, a painstakingly slow process that has impeded the influx to a mere 200 people per hour.

That means that a line more than four miles long has formed on the Kosovo side of the border, Campbell said.

On that side, the refugees are left waiting overnight on the snow-packed mountainside totally exposed to the elements, with no one to give them food or protection.

"You're talking about exposure and people dying," Campbell warned.

Lifting the blankets and sheeting on the wagons that were stopped for the night outside Kukes revealed a welter of drawn and tear-streaked faces. In one wagon, 17 people huddled shoulder to shoulder, warmed only by one another and the heat of a single candle.

A woman who gave her name as Rabije said they were all neighbors who had been rousted from their village of Jonaj, near Prizren in southern Kosovo, at 7 a.m. Wednesday by Serbian troops wearing black masks.

"You wanted NATO--now go to NATO," the Serbs taunted, according to Rabije, 27.

They were ordered to leave under threat of death, and even as they pulled away, crowded on the tractor-pulled wagon, they could see the Serbs setting the village's houses on fire. It took them 12 hours to cross into Albania.

The refugees are pulled in wagons and crammed into cars that have been stripped of their license plates by the Serbian police--evidently so that they will never be able to return.

Kukes, the Albanian border town where the refugees are received, is a ramshackle settlement of concrete-block structures left over from the days when this country was a Stalinist state, the most xenophobic in Europe.

But although their town is hardscrabble in appearance, Albanians are opening their hearts to their Kosovo kin. Despite their own obvious poverty, many have invited the refugees into their homes and tiny apartments. Others are helping to drive the new arrivals the 120 miles to the capital, Tirana.

That journey takes up to eight hours over a treacherous road that winds and twists through some of the most rugged mountains in the Balkans. The overloaded trucks and wagons lean precariously over the edge of the road as they make their tortuous way up and down sharp switchbacks. The narrow road is heavily rutted, and at places the asphalt deteriorates into mud.

The U.N. refugee agency's Campbell had been working in Kosovo until the NATO bombing started last week. He then pulled back into neighboring Macedonia, and in the subsequent days, members of his agency and other international humanitarian aid workers have been slowly making their way up to this town. Like the refugees, they have been hindered by the rugged terrain.

Only about 50 aid workers have arrived to help handle the nearly 100,000 refugees. "We're coping OK now, but as the number increases, we'll be under more pressure," Campbell said.

Reflecting on his work, he muttered: "It's a depressing job."

Albanian authorities have said their goal is to move the refugees as quickly as possible down to the coastal plain. Army trucks, commercial trucks, buses and tractors have been mobilized for the effort, and on Wednesday, hundreds of vehicles jampacked with human cargo were proceeding down the mountains.

Meanwhile, in Tirana, the population has spontaneously turned out to help.

Typical was Osslan Hafuzi, an unemployed worker from just outside Tirana. He turned up at the main refugee reception center in the capital to pick up a family of 10 perfect strangers.

"We have three houses," said Hafuzi, 29, who lives in a compound with an extended family of 22 people. "We'll move into two of the houses and let the refugees stay in the third one. They can have whatever they need."

At the reception center, there was a steady stream of cars stopping by with individual Albanians dropping off whatever they could donate: bread, bottled water or hampers of homemade food. Not only in Tirana but in surrounding towns and villages, refugees are being dropped off in the central square to be dispersed to private homes.

That is taking care of most of them so far. Elsewhere, temporary camps are being set up, such as approximately 200 tents erected in a Tirana park.

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