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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Exodus Tears Apart--and Reunites--Kin

Man's Bid to Bring Family to U.S. Proves to Be Daunting Task

April 17, 1999|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STANKOVAC, Macedonia — After 24 hours and 6,000 miles, Paul Marku arrived at a refugee camp here Friday with a bag of green onions and a promise to relieve his relatives' suffering.

Marku, a naturalized Kosovo Albanian who has lived in the U.S. for 13 years, had gotten a call from an aid worker Wednesday that his first cousin and family had fled their farm in Kosovo and were living in the sprawling Stankovac refugee camp in neighboring Macedonia. A few hours after the call, he was on a plane to Europe.

After a maddening day of bureaucratic struggle, Marku at last found his relatives, gathered in a green canvas tent: his 51-year-old cousin Mark and his wife, their two teenagers and Marku's elderly aunt.

Marku had brought no heater to warm the family against the chilly nights. He had brought no bed to ease the aches in the legs of his 74-year-old aunt, who had spent 10 days sleeping on the ground. Instead, all he could provide for comfort by the end of the day was an armload of food--fresh fruit, bottles of Coca-Cola and a sheaf of green onions.

"Look at how they're living," said Marku, a 35-year-old handyman who lives in the Bronx section of New York. He pointed to his aunt, who was present at his birth. "She knew me since the first time I saw the world," he said. "I can't stand to see her like this."

Marku vowed to bring the family back with him to the United States--but that would be difficult to achieve, according to U.S. and U.N. officials here. So far, no refugees have gone to the United States, which at one point offered to accept 20,000 people at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Marku said he spoke Friday to half a dozen agencies to secure the release of his relatives, without success. U.S. Embassy officials told him that refugees are a U.N. issue. U.N. officials said the United States was not taking refugees. And a local Muslim charity told him they couldn't help, because Marku's family is part of the tiny segment of the Kosovo Albanian population that is Roman Catholic.

Part of the difficulty is the unusual nature of the request. Marku is among only a handful of Americans to try to take refugees back to the United States, although many Kosovo Albanians living in Germany have given shelter to relatives in that country.

There's also a Catch-22 element to Marku's situation. U.S. Embassy officials said Marku's relatives could apply for a visa to get into the U.S. temporarily. But to obtain such a visa, applicants must prove they have a home to return to--which Marku's relatives do not, because Serbs burned it to the ground. For the U.N., one of the problems is distance. U.N. officials said they are reluctant to send refugees so far from home.

"To move people to America, it's psychologically a huge separation," said Paula Ghedini, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "We want to make sure all families are intact."

But Marku said that is precisely why he wants to bring his relatives to the United States, where about 50 other family members already live. "We would take full responsibility for them," he said.

As they sat in their tent, Marku's relatives told a depressingly familiar tale: They said they were first driven from their homes in June, when Serbs attacked their small village near Pec, killing three or four people. The relatives said the Serbs set fire to three homes located on the 200-year-old farm where the family grew corn and wheat.

After spending four months with friends in the neighboring Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, they went to stay with friends in Pristina, Kosovo's capital.

Then, near the end of March, shortly after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing campaign started, Marku's relatives told him over the phone about troubling new attacks near Pristina. Some neighbors had been driven from their homes at gunpoint. Others had been beaten.

It was the last time Marku spoke with them. On April 3, his relatives fled Pristina for Macedonia. At the border between Yugoslavia and Macedonia, they spent several days without shelter or food as they waited for admission to the country.

Now, the family of five lives in a 20-by-30-foot tent. Cardboard covers the ground. Five heavy blankets hang in one corner. There is no furniture. About 14,000 other people live in similar conditions at the camp.

Mark Marku, Marku's cousin, said he would like to go to the United States, but only until the fighting is done in Kosovo. Then, he said, he'd like to return to the farm where he has worked most of his life.

As her family members talked back and forth, Tone Marku, the aunt, sat cross-legged in the sole source of brightness in the tent, a square of light from a plastic window cut in the tent wall. Her face was a knot of wrinkles. She crossed herself, then clasped her hands together in prayer. "I hope to God that someone will help us," she said.

*

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren in Skopje, Macedonia, contributed to this report.

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