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Crisis in Yugoslavia

As Refugees Flood Borders, Kosovo's Men Are Missing

April 06, 1999|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUKES, Albania — When U.N. refugee worker Laura Boldrini stood at Albania's border with Kosovo over the weekend, she felt as though she were on another planet, "a planet of no men, only women and children."

Like many aid workers and journalists, Boldrini has observed that the overwhelming majority of refugees streaming in from Kosovo province are female, and that those males who have made it through the gantlet of Serbian checkpoints have tended to be the old and the very young.

"There were no young men," Boldrini said. "There were old men, but I'm talking about [there not being] men between the ages of 17 and 45."

Along with persistent reports of summary executions and mass internments of young men inside Kosovo, the low number of ethnic Albanian men making it over the border since the exodus began last month has raised fears here.

"There's a story happening over there that's going to make the My Lai massacre [in South Vietnam] look like a Christmas party," one humanitarian worker warned Monday.

Where have Kosovo's young men gone? To hear refugees now in Albania tell it, many have been killed, often gruesomely. Others reportedly have been arrested and held in undisclosed locations, or have been forced to serve as "human shields" against strikes by NATO or by Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas.

But many here say they believe that most military-age men are hiding in the forests and mountains of Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia, either because they have joined the KLA or because they dared not accompany their families through police checkpoints for fear of being arrested or killed.

The result is that many of the exiled Kosovars, who have lost their homes and their possessions, are in a state of anxious uncertainty about their male relatives' fate.

"I have two nephews in the KLA who are still in Kosovo, as well as two cousins. I don't know whether they are still alive," said Deli Sokoli, 48, from the village of Pozar.

U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials have called attention to the men's absence and have said that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will be held responsible for crimes committed against them.

"The vast majority of refugees crossing international borders out of Kosovo have been women and children, and we are gravely concerned by the whereabouts and fate of the missing men," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said last week.

Tales of Death and Terror

Many refugees crossing the border reported seeing or hearing of men who were slain at police checkpoints inside Kosovo because they were unable to produce a certain sum in German marks--varying from about $100 to $200.

Others told of Yugoslav forces that killed small family groups to spread terror and spur the evacuations of entire neighborhoods. Still others said they have seen or heard about the slayings of 50 to 100 men at a time, such as a reported massacre of 70 men March 25 in the southern Kosovo village of Bela Crkva, or of 64 men over three days in another, nearby village. A videotape said to show the victims there has been smuggled out by a refugee.

A new massacre involving mostly males was alleged Monday by refugee Belzat Tertini, 62, of Djakovo. Speaking to The Times in Kukes, where he was traveling on foot carrying a granddaughter on his shoulders, he said that, on Wednesday at dawn, Serbian paramilitary forces invaded a mosque during morning prayers and killed 80 people.

Tertini said he was in his basement about 50 yards from the mosque when the killing took place, that he could hear the screams of the victims, and that when the killers' rampage ended after about 20 minutes, he emerged to witness the bodies, some of which had been decapitated.

Tertini's account could not be verified. But separately, two other refugees in Kukes said Monday they had heard that many men had been killed in a mosque in Djakovo, a city that has been in flames for days as Yugoslav forces expel its mainly ethnic Albanian population.

Meanwhile, Bashkim Millaku, 36, a refugee from the city of Glina who reached Kukes on Monday, said he was one of a group of 500 men who had been interned, abused and used as "human shields" by the Yugoslav forces last week in a town called Kraljan, west of Pristina, the Kosovo capital.

Millaku tearfully recounted that he had been trying to get to Albania on Thursday when he and the others were taken prisoner and forced to strip naked and lie on the ground in the rain for hours. Later they were made to sit in front of Yugoslav artillery that was bombarding a village held by the KLA, he said. The majority of the prisoners were ultimately released, but about 90 younger men were told to remain, he said.

"They imprisoned and maybe shot them," said Millaku, who added that he could hear gunshots as he was leaving.

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