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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Serb Border Guards Hindering Refugees Bound for Macedonia

Kosovo: Ethnic Albanians without passports are being barred from leaving. The policy has split families and stranded up to 3,000 people.

April 18, 1999|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STANKOVAC, Macedonia — Basri Etemi squatted on a damp tent floor in a refugee camp here Saturday as rain poured outside. He was cold. He was tired. And worst of all, he was alone.

At 7 a.m., Serbian shelling had driven the Kosovo Albanian and his extended family of 25 from their tiny village toward the Macedonian border, he said. Etemi had a passport. The others did not.

"The Serbs wouldn't let them cross the border," said Etemi, 52, his face weary and drained. "I don't know what happened to them."

In a move that baffled U.N. officials and promised more chaos for the refugee effort, Serbian border guards apparently began a new policy Saturday of stopping refugees without passports from crossing into Macedonia.

The new tactic had the effect of randomly splitting scores of families and stranding an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 people on the Serbian side of the border Saturday, according to refugee and U.N. accounts. It also worried refugee officials, who said that attempting to reunite the divided groups will further strain already burdened relief services.

"You run into a lot of problems with reunification, and to the extent this makes that problem worse, it's a concern," said Jo Hutton, head of the local CARE branch that helps settle refugees in this hilly camp.

U.N. officials expressed puzzlement at the turn of events. Until recently, Serbian border guards have made no effort to halt the flood of refugees fleeing Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia.

However, the guards' behavior has become increasingly erratic, according to refugee and U.N. accounts. In at least one instance, Serbs turned back refugees on a train, only to allow them to cross the next day.

"It doesn't make sense to any of us," said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "They're just jerking these people around."

Still another worry at the camps Saturday was a report from NATO air reconnaissance that as many as 100,000 ethnic Albanians may be on the move in Kosovo. The refugee camps, scattered across the northern reaches of Macedonia, are nearing capacity.

"I'm going to start setting up more tents in 10 minutes," said a harried manager of the French-run Stankovac refugee camp, which is close to capacity at 14,000 people.

Each of the red, boxy buses that trundled into this camp Saturday was instantly swarmed by hundreds of refugees shouting questions in an attempt to locate relatives lost in the shuffle.

One elderly woman collapsed in a heap in one of the tents where refugees are processed and given medical evaluations. She sobbed as she explained that she had left two grown sons behind on the other side of the border. She would not give her name, saying Serbian police had threatened to kill them if she spoke to anyone.

"A lot of people are left over there," she said. "They are all in misery."

The ruthless efficiency with which Serbs seem to have emptied the region around the town of Urosevac in southern Kosovo seems to have improved even further during the past few days, according to refugee accounts.

Refugees interviewed Saturday all told similar tales. Some said Serbian police or paramilitaries would enter a town and kill one or two people or burn a few homes. Others said they had heard about such incidents and simply fled. The frightened villagers would then head toward Urosevac, where the streets have been barricaded in a way that funnels people to the local train station.

Several refugees said Serbs housed them for a day or two in homes in Urosevac that had already been vacated by other ethnic Albanians, creating de facto way stations for the departing refugees.

Bedjet Krusnici, 37, had been camping in the woods near his village, Rahovica, when he decided a few days ago that he had to flee to Macedonia. The problem: His wife, Luljeta, is nine months pregnant.

After driving into Urosevac on his tractor, the couple stayed for a few days in what they described as a near ghost town, populated only by other refugees. Saturday, the couple had to walk to the local train station, board a train there, and then, after the train stopped, walk another mile or so to the border crossing.

By the time she arrived at the Stankovac refugee camp Saturday night, Luljeta Krusnici's face was swollen from crying. She sat on a yellow plastic tarpaulin and struggled to get up when her husband entered the tent.

"I have had only bread to eat for several days," she said. "I'm exhausted, and I don't want my baby born here."

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