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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Tales of Terror From Refugees Fleeing Kosovo

Exodus: Officials and aid workers in Albania and Macedonia are overwhelmed by influx. One U.N. source accuses Serbs of 'trying to empty out Pristina of ethnic Albanians.'

April 02, 1999|JOHN DANISZEWSKI and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KUKES, Albania — A 26-year-old student forced to strip naked while soldiers taunted her. An old man shot through the head with a Kalashnikov for moving too slowly. Toddlers forced to walk for miles in their stockinged feet.

Tales of horror, cruelty and depravity emerged Thursday at the Albanian border as more than 10,000 Kosovo Albanians who had been deported from their homes trudged, stumbled or rode across a red line on a bridge that marked the end of life as they had known it.

Many were weeping as they crossed that line, and some journalists and aid workers joined them. The woeful human tide of refugees to Albania and neighboring Macedonia increased dramatically Thursday as Serbs sought to empty Kosovo's capital, Pristina, of ethnic Albanians.

In Macedonia, thousands of Pristina residents who had been rounded up and forced onto trains, enduring a horrific exodus from Kosovo, huddled together in a damp valley just inside the border as darkness fell.

Many of the refugees, including children and the elderly, had already spent one night exposed to the elements and faced the prospect of a second night in the cold surrounded by low mountains only about 15 miles from Skopje, the Macedonian capital.

Macedonian officials were swamped by the massive scale of the influx, and aid workers were overwhelmed and unable to provide adequate food or any kind of shelter at the border.

From time to time, the few Red Cross volunteers on the Macedonian border rushed from the crowd carrying seriously ill refugees on stretchers. But the situation was clearly too much for the volunteers and authorities to handle.

"It's the first time during all the wars in the former Yugoslavia that they're doing this: ethnic cleansing by train," said Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. "They are clearly trying to empty out Pristina of ethnic Albanians."

The U.N. refugee agency estimated Thursday evening that 20,000 to 25,000 refugees were stranded in the Macedonian valley, and there were reports that trains with thousands more refugees were on their way.

In Albania, about 120,000 Kosovo Albanians have arrived in the country since last Friday, including about 15,000 on Thursday alone, refugee officials said. The arrivals were coming so quickly that officials on the Albanian side were unable to provide enough transportation to move the refugees from the border to the nearest town, Kukes, about 12 miles away.

As a result, 3,000 refugees were left sitting on an Albanian mountainside Thursday night. No one knew how many were still waiting to be allowed across by Serbian police in Kosovo, but aid officials in Kukes acknowledged that the line could still be miles long.

A U.N. refugee agency official said it looked more and more as if Serbian forces in Kosovo have embarked on a policy of mass deportation reminiscent of Europe in World War II. Two women and two children died Thursday from dehydration and exposure to the elements on the Albanian side of the border, said U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Laura Boldrini. An old man was said to have died "from nothing but fright."

After days in which the refugees arriving in Albania had been from villages and towns in southern Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia, the influx Thursday came largely from Pristina. Refugees told consistent stories of their neighborhoods being surrounded by masked police and soldiers who taunted and robbed them as they told the ethnic Albanian population to vacate the city at once or die.

The refugees said they were marched through the streets of the city to a soccer stadium and a central plaza near the railroad station, where they spent the night in the open, guarded by police with dogs. Then they were loaded onto trains, buses and refrigerator trucks Thursday morning and sent to the border.

"You can't imagine what kind of silence there was as we walked through the streets of Pristina," said Leonore Lutoli, 22, a blond woman with a ponytail. "I thought Hitler's time was coming back, and we were going to some kind of Auschwitz."

"Nobody believed that we would arrive in Albania. I did not believe I would be here alive today," said Enver Doda, 22, a former employee of a Kosovo radio station, distraught because he had lost his parents in the confusion.

"Albania or a bullet," is what Blerim Pereva, 34, said he was told as he was forced out of his home at gunpoint with his wife, who is nine months pregnant.

The stories in Macedonia were frighteningly similar.

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