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Crisis in Yugoslavia

2 Montenegro Towns Warm to Kosovars

Balkans: Ulcinj and Rozaje, both with ethnic Albanian majorities, are housing most of the refugees to their republic.

April 13, 1999|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PODGORICA, Yugoslavia — Every year, Januz Reka, an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, rents vacation space in the resort town of Ulcinj, on Montenegro's Adriatic coast. He's in town again now, but this time as a refugee.

"I always rented a room from the same landlord, but now he claims he does not recognize me, and I can have the room only if I pay 600 deutsche marks [$340] a month," Reka said. "Where can I get that kind of money?"

Instead of his old familiar resort digs, Reka, 35, his wife and four children are crammed into a tiny room with two beds renting for half the price. But at least his family--and the great majority of the nearly 25,000 new refugees who have doubled the population of Ulcinj in the past three weeks--have a place to stay.

At Rozaje, the first border town that Kosovo refugees hit when reaching Montenegro, the situation is far worse, with an estimated 6,000 crammed onto factory floors. About 2,100 refugees came Sunday after walking through mountain passes, and more arrived Monday, bringing the current total to about 14,000, according to the Podgorica office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"In the last 72 to 96 hours, conditions of people arriving [in Rozaje] are worse, the numbers are going up, and they don't have the means to move on," said Robert Breen, head of the Podgorica office.

These two towns--one in the mountains, one on the coast, both with ethnic Albanian majorities even before the latest outflow from Kosovo--are now sheltering nearly all the 40,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who have fled to Montenegro since NATO bombing began on March 24 and Serbian forces launched the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo. About 5,000 more have passed through Montenegro on their way elsewhere, mainly to Albania.

Local residents and municipal authorities in these two towns have managed to provide some sort of roof for almost everyone, with minimal outside help. But for thousands, that shelter is only the floor of a mosque, a bus station or restaurant--and some are still outdoors with only plastic sheeting as protection from the rain.

In Rozaje, while supplies of bulk food are sufficient, a shortage of cooking facilities may leave many people hungry in coming days, relief workers say.

The influx places major burdens on politically tense Montenegro, which together with Serbia makes up what is left of Yugoslavia.

About 15% of Montenegro's residents are now refugees or displaced people from the various wars that have torn the former Yugoslav federation. That includes about 20,000 from Kosovo who fled here since early last year but before the bombing began, and about 30,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia who have resettled here, according to Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Dragisa Burzan, who has responsibility for refugees and the displaced.

Montenegro's reformist government is sharply at odds with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and has refused to formally recognize a national "state of war." That means that for now, at least, this republic is a haven.

But because Montenegro is part of Yugoslavia, international aid organizations are not as active here as they are in Macedonia and Albania. Most foreign aid workers, including those from the United Nations, were pulled out just before the bombing began, but returned a few days after refugees began arriving here.

Other factors further complicate efforts to bring in international aid: Some NATO bombs have targeted Montenegro, which houses Yugoslav military facilities. There is intense fear here of a pro-Milosevic coup attempt, adding to concerns about foreigners' safety. And new aid supply routes must be set up to replace those that run through Belgrade.

Also, those who flee here are technically not considered "refugees" by international aid groups but rather "internally displaced persons" because they are still inside their own country.

"We cannot cope with the problem on our own," Burzan said. "We are hoping other European countries will take part of them. Something like 20,000 would be very helpful.

"We have additional problems because refugees pose for us a security problem as well. . . . This is a polarized society, which means the pro-Milosevic opposition here is quite strong . . . and the pro-Milosevic people are backed by the army."

Most shelter and other refugee aid comes not from the government or international organizations but directly from ethnic Albanians.

"The great majority of Albanians in Montenegro are very sorry about the troubles faced by their people in Kosovo, and are ready to give all the help they can," said Dino Ramovic, the Muslim editor in chief and owner of Radio Peace, an Albanian-language radio station in the predominantly ethnic Albanian town of Tuzi, just outside Podgorica.

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