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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Mother Offers Words of Forgiveness for Errant Bombing

Airstrike: Refugees from convoy blame Serbia for misery, even though NATO ordnance fell on them.

April 17, 1999|MARK LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUKES, Albania — Rokman Bajrami has a message for the NATO pilot who may have bombed her and other fleeing refugees near Djakovica, Kosovo, this week: He is forgiven and welcome to visit her tent--even though the errant airstrikes took her beloved son.

"If that pilot killed my son, I excuse him," said the mother of seven from Djakovica now living in a crowded refugee camp just across the Kosovo border here. "I feel sorry for my son, but now I feel sorry for this pilot too."

One might expect Kosovo refugees' confidence in the U.S.-led air campaign to have dipped after NATO officials acknowledged that one of their planes attacked a large convoy, killing the very people that the military operation was designed to assist.

But those in the targeted convoy who were interviewed Friday in refugee camps and hospital rooms--including some like Bajrami who watched family members die--said Serbia is responsible for their misery, even if it was one of NATO's bombs that actually dropped from the sky on them.

After Wednesday's convoy attack, Yugoslav government officials took reporters on guided tours of the carnage and cited it as evidence that NATO is creating a humanitarian crisis even as it talks of alleviating one.

But the refugees in the middle of the escalating conflict, who lost children, parents and spouses when their convoy went up in flames or who suffered injuries themselves, were more than willing to forgive this latest hardship.

Bajrami's eyes welled up with tears when she recounted the plane swooping over them, the bombs falling on both sides of the convoy and then the deadly direct hit. But Bajrami, 64, said that horrifying day was just one of many she and her family have endured in recent weeks. Her future, she said, remains in the hands of NATO.

A gracious host, Bajrami had little to offer visitors to her canvas tent: some wooden boxes to sit on, blankets for warmth and whatever food and drink that aid workers brought at the Italian-run camp. But she said she would open her home to anybody from NATO.

Another woman who had been in the same convoy, which roamed for days in search of the Albanian border, leaned up from her bed in Kukes' grim municipal hospital to say she has no grudge against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization either.

"If NATO did it by mistake, God will forgive them," said Rrushe Gjota, 46, a refugee from Kosovo. "If Serbs did it, I'll never forgive them."

Two days had passed since the bombs fell and Gjota's ears still rang. She pulled back the bedsheet to show another reminder: A swollen, discolored leg that had been torn open by shrapnel.

When the bombs fell that afternoon, Faze Cela covered her head with her hands, leaving them severely burned by the flash of flames. Her daughter was injured even worse and her husband was left dead on the road.

But Cela said that no matter which airplane actually dropped the bombs, it is the Serbs who ousted them from their homes and put them on that dangerous roadway.

"Only Serbs can be blamed," she said. "NATO was protecting us. NATO is with us. How can I be angry at a pilot who was trying to save us?"

Another survivor, Rexhed Morina, 63, insisted that it was a Serbian airplane that dropped the explosives on the long trail of tractors stretched out on the road heading toward Prizren.

He dismissed the apologetic account given by the still-unnamed NATO pilot in which he took responsibility for the attack on one civilian convoy.

"His apology cannot be accepted," Morina said. "He shouldn't be apologizing for what he didn't do. The Serbs bombed us so they could say it was a NATO mistake."

But Morina said that in the off chance that NATO did do it, he accepted the bombing as an unintended consequence of a military campaign aimed at giving them back their peaceful lives again.

"We have a tradition in our country that if someone kills by mistake, we forgive it," he said. "We also can excuse NATO if they did bomb the convoy."

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