YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Crisis in Yugoslavia | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Refugees Leave Lives Behind as They Flee


VRBNICA, Yugoslavia — The proof of Rrushe Delija's identity as a Kosovo Albanian citizen was lying Friday in the middle of the road out of Yugoslavia.

Her black-and-white photo is a little faded, but it's still attached to the second page of the brown pass. The booklet, discarded like some nearby clothing, certifies that she is 36 years old and was born in the village of Buqane, near Pec.

If she is still alive, Delija now is probably a refugee somewhere across the border in Albania, wondering whether her identity as Yugoslav citizen No. 0112963949971 has been erased forever.

Even as the mass exodus of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo continued on the 45th day of NATO airstrikes, Serbian police at this Yugoslav border post made no secret of the fact that they are seizing identity documents from fleeing refugees. They also are removing license plates from cars. Hundreds of the plates are piling up in an ever-spreading heap.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has cited such deprivation of identity as possible evidence of genocide against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, but to the Serbs it is fair treatment of people they regard as traitors in a time of war.

The border police apparently don't believe that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians were ordered to leave their homes, and in some cases were attacked, before crossing here on their way to refugee camps in Kukes, 10 miles southwest in Albania.

A police sergeant, who did not give his name, said he explained it to the fleeing refugees this way: "If you don't respect this state and [if you] spit on it, then you don't need these [identity] papers."

Sometimes, ethnic Albanian refugees make it easier for the border guards, according to the sergeant: They discard their own identity papers in disgust, he said.

"A lot are throwing them in our faces, saying, 'We don't need this trash,' " he said.

There may be another reason Delija's identity card was left behind. She was supposed to renew it Feb. 23, 1994, 10 years after it was issued. For some reason, she never got around to it.

As for the license plates, the sergeant said the police accept that someday the refugees will return to Kosovo, and the police don't want separatist Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas dressed as civilians simply driving back in.

Some of the plates were ripped off cars that came about 60 miles--from Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital--but most were from cities closer to the border, such as Djakovica and Prizren.

Around 1 p.m. Friday, no one was leaving Yugoslavia by way of the Vrbnica border post. A small crowd of journalists and photographers waited on the Albanian side for more refugees to come.

By 1:30, about 40 refugees, including a father with a child on his shoulders and a man pushing an empty wheelchair, were walking the last few hundred yards toward the border crossing.

They had to make their way past dozens of large, concrete pyramids lined up along both sides of the road to slow NATO ground troops and their tanks--if outside forces decide to invade.

Yugoslav troops also have dug holes in the road to lay land mines. The border police kindly told a few of the visiting journalists Friday not to step on the mines as they walked to the Yugoslav-Albanian border.

The last address listed for Delija on her identity card was in Pec, a city in western Kosovo that has suffered some of the worst NATO bombing, arson and looting since the air war began March 24. Fire destroyed a neighborhood of shops and houses almost two blocks long in the city's center, and edgy soldiers patrolling the streets recently said some of the town's damage was caused by NATO bombs.

The region south of Pec was once one of the separatist KLA's strongholds, and in some villages, there isn't a house or shop that isn't a charred ruin.

Farther south, in Prizren, the KLA never managed to get a foothold, and the looters and arsonists have done little damage in the city since NATO airstrikes began.

Until last week, Prizren was known as an island of tolerance in Kosovo, a place where ethnic Albanians, Serbs, Turks and Gypsies got along remarkably well, even as villages burned outside the town.

But several thousand Kosovo Albanians have fled Prizren in recent days. Some say men in uniforms ordered them to go; others say they're fleeing NATO bombs, like one that killed four Gypsies in a crowded neighborhood April 28.

Although Prizren is still far from empty of Kosovo Albanians or other ethnic groups, the population shrinks each day that the bombing goes on.

NATO leaders insist they are waging a just war against evil perpetrated by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. That's not how it looks to the men in the Holy Archangels' Monastery.

The Orthodox monastery just outside Prizren was founded in 1343 by Czar Stephen Dusan, a Serbian king who ruled a medieval realm extending all the way to Greece.

Los Angeles Times Articles