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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Families Separated Amid Chaos

April 08, 1999|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRAZDA, Macedonia — In one of 1,700 tents in the massive refugee transit center near Macedonia's border with Kosovo, 14-year-old Mentor Hoti was stretched out face down, sobbing into a rough wool blanket.

Like countless other refugees from Kosovo, Mentor had been separated from his family, not by Serbian soldiers who expelled him from his house and country, but during the unorganized and at times callous registration process on the Macedonian side of the border.

The agony of families separated at the border here has been complicated by the fact that Macedonia has sent some of the refugees to other countries without their consent and without making sure all family members were together, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In Mentor's case, an act of kindness led to his isolation from his family.

Like most of the 20,000 refugees in the Brazda camp, Mentor's family was forced out of its house a few days after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign began last month. For a week they waited at the border in the cold, rain and mud, but at least Mentor was with his parents and five brothers and sisters.

But Sunday, the boy helped carry a little girl who had fainted out of the crowd to get medical attention. When he tried to go back to his family, a Macedonian soldier made him get on a bus.

"I was very scared," Mentor said, remembering the ride to this camp about 10 miles from the border. He has not seen his parents since, and wonders if they were sent to Turkey or Albania or another camp in Macedonia.

"I'm worried they will send me to another country and I will never find them," Mentor said, big tears streaming down his cheeks.

He shares his tent with 12 other people. They have been nice to him, and he has enough to eat, he says. But he is desperate to find his parents.

"Maybe they're even here in one of these tents, but I've looked for three days and I cannot find them," he said.

Tracing family members even within individual camps is almost impossible because the relief agencies running them do not have lists of who is where.

Macedonian officials refused to let any relief workers participate in registering refugees at the border or transferring them to centers. Aid workers at Brazda have been too swamped just settling the thousands of people dropped off here Monday and Tuesday to organize a registration process.

A few minutes' walk from Mentor's tent, 5-year-old Jehona Aliu played with a large blond doll in a tent with several other children, under the kind supervision of British soldiers.

The other children had wandered away from their parents at the camp and were waiting to be reunited. But Jehona was separated from her parents, brother and sister last week when Serbian soldiers were forcing people onto trains to the border.

As something of a veteran at being isolated from her family, Jehona sang to the other children to calm them down. And she told them not to worry, at least their parents were in the camp. She has no idea where hers are, British Cpl. Carl Newbrook, her temporary baby sitter, explained.

Without shedding a tear, Jehona told visitors what little she remembered about the frightening night when she was separated from her parents.

"My dad told me to run or the policeman would kill me," said the slender girl with short brown hair and a purple jacket a few sizes too small.

Strangers looked after Jehona during the days and nights spent out in the open at the border, said Newbrook, who was gathering information as best he could in hopes of helping relief workers eventually reunite her with her family.

"My parents have gone somewhere, but I don't know where," Jehona said.

Relief workers have made a few gestures to try to trace lost children, but they do not address split families in which children are accompanied by at least one parent.

Naser Grdovci, 35, who was an employment counselor in Pristina, was turned away from a line, set up briefly Tuesday, for those searching for lost children.

Grdovci was separated from his wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 10, on Saturday, when they were put on a bus and he was not allowed to go. They could still be in Macedonia, at a tent camp or with a host family, or they could have been sent to Turkey or Albania, he said.

"I'm afraid they've been sent to another country without me," Grdovci said. "Can't you read on my face how I feel? This is horrible."

Grdovci said it was awful to be forced from his home in Pristina.

"But nothing is as bad as being separated from my family," he added.

Grdovci's story of being separated from his family by Macedonian soldiers putting people on buses at the border was painfully common in the hastily erected refugee camps, said Paula Ghedini, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency.

Veteran relief workers were alarmed by the Macedonian authorities' lack of care in keeping families together. Trying to reunite them after they've been dispersed could be extraordinarily complicated and costly.

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