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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

The Elderly: Alone, Broken and 'Nothing Left to Live For'

Refugees: Some who have lost everything would rather die than start over.

May 02, 1999|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIRANA, Albania — Eighty-two-year-old Ahmet Morina sits forlorn on a pile of dirty mattresses outside a crowded sports palace in central Tirana, barely able to move and haunted by thoughts that his sons were killed back in Kosovo.

"I think that my life will end here," said the white-haired retired farmer, whose pale, spindly legs, sticking out from his trousers, end in swollen and bandaged feet.

Like many elderly people, Morina was separated from his family in the tumult and confusion of the forced mass exodus from his home in the disputed Serbian province, after armed Serbs came and ordered all ethnic Albanians out. Because he did not have money to pay his tormentors, he was ordered off a farm wagon and left abandoned by the side of the road.

Fortunately, some strangers passing later were able to give him a lift. And after three days on his own in the refugee-packed northern Albanian city of Kukes, he was found by a daughter-in-law. Otherwise, he probably would be dead by now, of a broken heart.

Nevertheless, the exhausting journey has left him virtually an invalid. He sits all day doing nothing. When he needs to use a toilet, younger men have to carry him to the overflowing latrines.

It is a tragic lot for a man who once fought with partisans in World War II against the Nazis and then ran a farm and raised nine children.

One month after the start of the Kosovo refugee crisis, officials of relief organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross are beginning to focus on the special needs of elderly refugees, especially the hundreds of the most vulnerable among them--those who lost contact with their families in the rush to get out of Kosovo.

For many such people, according to Red Cross spokeswoman Dalani Carlisle, family reunification is a matter of life or death.

"What we are finding as we go deeper and deeper in the community is that this one group is particularly vulnerable," Carlisle said.

She described old people who have lost their land and their familiar surroundings and suddenly find themselves alone. Confronted with the seemingly impossible challenge of starting over at their age, some of these people seem instead to be willing themselves to die, she said.

"These elderly are basically turning their faces to the wall. We have found people who have not eaten or drunk anything for days. They say, 'We have nothing left to live for.' "

The Red Cross has identified about 80 elderly people completely alone and is looking for their relatives through publicly posted lists and radio broadcasts. Carlisle believes that the number does not reflect the reality of the problem, which she thinks is actually much larger.

The more than 600,000 refugees who have emerged from Kosovo since the start of NATO bombing March 24 are overwhelmingly women and children. The elderly, men and women, represent a minority--only a few percent, in the opinion of aid workers. In the Serbs' rush to expel the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo, no one knows how many old people might have been killed or abandoned, or who died before they could reach safety.

"We know from the stories told by the refugees that they have walked for four to seven days to get here," Carlisle said. "Our suspicion is that those who were not strong enough were left on the wayside."

Older people "always have special problems. They are more vulnerable, more subject to exhaustion and chronic diseases," said Ariane Quentier, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Elderly people, like all refugees, have only limited access to basic medical supplies and clinics, and there are no special programs or organizations operating to help the elderly cope.

One factor helping the elderly is the tradition that has persisted in Kosovo society that one adult child continues to live with the parents. So most old people initially had a network of children and grandchildren to help them make the journey to Albania or Macedonia. Those too weak to walk often were carried on the backs of their sons or sons-in-law. Some were toted in wheelbarrows.

Elderly refugees who have reached Albania say they are having a more difficult time than their children in coping emotionally with the new circumstances.

"My mind is not here," confessed Kadri Bytuci, 67, from the village of Opterusa. "Even if somebody calls me, I might not answer."

Having an aged parent to care for is a burden for the women who bear the brunt of the responsibility in the refugee camps.

"Of course it is hard for me. I cannot do all he would like me to do for him," said Morina's daughter-in-law Hanumshahe, 37, who found him but remains in anguish not knowing the fate of her husband, who she believes is now fighting with the Kosovo Liberation Army.

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