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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

After 15 Days Alone, Refugee Speaks to Dad

Reunion: Stranded in Macedonia, Mentor Hoti, 14, is able to phone family he was separated from. He will join them in Germany.

April 20, 1999|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STANKOVAC, Macedonia — After weeks of heartache and anxiety, 14-year-old Mentor Hoti had a banner day Monday.

First, he spoke to his parents by telephone for the first time since being separated from them 15 days earlier after their forced flight from Kosovo.

Then, a few minutes after that phone call, a representative from the International Committee of the Red Cross visited his tent to tell him that an effort was underway to get him to Germany to be reunited with his parents, who were evacuated last week.

"Maybe it will take a week, but we'll get you to Germany," said Elvis Rexhepi, the Red Cross representative, explaining that there were a few technicalities that had to be worked out.

Rexhepi patted the boy on the shoulder warmly and said, "Don't worry, Mentor."

Mentor fled Kosovo with his family three weeks ago but was separated from them while they were being held with tens of thousands of other refugees on the Macedonian side of the border with Yugoslavia.

They were taken to different refugee camps, a mile apart from each other. But the lack of organization in the camps, which were just being set up, kept them from finding each other. Two days before the Red Cross tried to reunite them Friday, his parents left for Germany.

Mentor's happy Monday followed a grim weekend. For hours at a time, he wandered alone in the Stankovac camp, where his family had stayed for 10 days and where he was moved Friday. He complained of missing the friends he had left behind in the first refugee camp. And he cried in frustration and sadness over his separation from his family.

His mood changed abruptly Monday when, using a borrowed cellular telephone, he was able to reach his parents, who are staying in a refugee compound in Munich.

A huge smile lighted up his face when his older brother picked up the phone. Then, when his father got on the line, the emotion was too much for Mentor, and he started to cry.

Mentor told his family that he was staying with a relative in the Stankovac camp. He asked them to help him get to Germany and repeatedly assured them: "Don't worry about me. I'll be OK."

After hanging up, Mentor said that his father, Ilijaz Hoti, had cried "a little bit" while they were talking. "Because he loves me very much," Mentor said, beaming while he spoke.

Monday's good news was a welcome change from the violence and gloom that have characterized Mentor's life for more than a year.

The struggle between ethnic Albanians seeking independence for Kosovo and Serbian security forces has been raging for more than a year in the region where Mentor grew up. A year before NATO began its bombing campaign last month, his area was under siege by Serbian forces, who killed scores of people, including women and children.

Before Mentor and his family crossed the border into Macedonia three weeks ago, they had already moved eight times within Kosovo. Each move, Mentor recalls, was forced by the Serbian authorities' campaign of terror.

"Each time, we left because the Serbs were grenading that place," Mentor said.

Sometimes they stayed only a few days, sometimes a few weeks. The most time he spent anywhere was four months in the town of Vucitrn before his family was finally forced out of Kosovo.

Mentor often daydreams about the peaceful times before the family members were forced out of their home in the village of Polac.

"We had a great life there," Mentor said. Even the family's vagabond existence over the last year in Kosovo was better than living in tents in refugee camps in a country that does not want them, he said.

He said he hopes that Germany will be better, but he desperately wants to return to Kosovo.

The experience of the last year has turned him into a fervent nationalist. He believes deeply in the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has been fighting a guerrilla war for independence from Serbia-dominated Yugoslavia, and he is passionate in his support for the Kosovo Albanians' shadow president, Ibrahim Rugova, who apparently is under house arrest in Kosovo.

Mentor used to be a quiet, gentle child, but now he seems different, said Mihrije Pllana-Hoti, 37, the relative watching over him in the Stankovac camp.

"He sometimes seems very aggressive now," she said. "He was never like that before. But his family has been deported so many times. It's been very hard on him."

Mentor likes school, especially classes in the Albanian language and literature, and his relative said that he was always a good student but that his studies have been disrupted by his frequent moves.

He even had to leave his first girlfriend behind. She too is a refugee, he believes. But he has no idea where she is.

Young and Alone

Mentor Hoti, 14, and his family were forced from their Kosovo home shortly after NATO launched its airstrikes March 24. After a week of waiting to cross the Macedonian border, he was separated from his family when he stopped to help a girl who had fainted. For previous reports on him, see The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/mentor.

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