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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Serb Terror Not Abated, Latest Refugees Report

May 11, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MORINE, Albania — If Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has begun withdrawing his forces from beleaguered Kosovo, the masked, dagger-wielding thugs who drove 14-year-old Fitore Lika and throngs of other ethnic Albanians out of the province Monday hadn't gotten the word.

"They told us to go or we would all be massacred," said Fitore, weeping as she trudged across the Kosovo border in a torrential downpour. "They came in the morning with masks and long knives and told us to run to NATO if we wanted to be saved."

After a weekend during which Milosevic's army troops, police and paramilitary gunmen stepped up their campaign of terror and expulsion, officials of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva noted that the exodus had sent about half of Kosovo's 1.8 million ethnic Albanians fleeing beyond the border of the southern province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

Kukes, the nearest town in this rugged and remote corner of northern Albania, has swelled to five times its 28,000 prewar population. More than one-third of the 400,000 refugees who have flooded through here have hunkered down in miserable tents and plastic-shrouded truck beds to wait out what they hope will be a short-lived war.

"This town has seen the largest movement of people through a single place since World War II, if not before that," said U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ray Wilkinson, reiterating the organization's fear that the inundation provides fresh victims for already bandit-ridden northern Albania.

In Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, the Yugoslav army announced that it was withdrawing part of its forces from Kosovo because it had completed its rout of ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army. NATO and Western leaders said the announcement fell far short of their demand for a full and verifiable pullout.

The withdrawal order was said to be in effect from 10 p.m. Sunday, but refugees consistently reported being rousted from their most recent hiding places hours later.

Most of the Kosovo Albanians in the latest procession of sorrow that arrived here in sporadic, tear-stained clutches of several hundred were among the hundreds of thousands who had been forced from their homes by threats and gunfire but were unable to escape Kosovo.

Stripped of money, documents and dignity weeks ago and left to wander, the hungry, desperate stragglers have again begun crossing out of Kosovo in droves.

"We've been walking for three weeks and only with the help of God are we still alive," Nuradin Gashi, exhausted and sobbing, proclaimed as he was met by aid workers at this border post with his pregnant wife, infant son and ailing mother-in-law. They had fled their home in Skenderaj under a hail of Serbian gunfire, hiding in the forested mountains with only the milk from a cow they took with them for sustenance.

"The police have been playing with us, pushing us first here and then there, threatening to kill us if we didn't leave and then blocking our way," said the 22-year-old refugee, who could be taken for twice his age.

Gashi said refugees had been repeatedly flushed out of their homes by Serbian forces after the bombing started. They would filter back into homes that had not been destroyed, only to be sent fleeing into the woods and hills again by the Serbs.

That happened three times, and the third time, the ethnic Albanians remained in the woods for three weeks, he said. On Monday, the Serbs arrived with a very strong force including masked men.

As with Fitore, the 14-year-old girl, and other refugees who were interviewed Monday, Gashi said he and his family were told to leave or be killed.

"There appears to be a deliberateness to the [ethnic] cleansing in recent days," said Wilkinson, the U.N. refugee agency spokesman. According to the refugee accounts, Wilkinson said, the Serbs appeared to be combing through Kosovo to chase out people who long ago had been forced from their homes.

At least 1,000 refugees arrived at a single Albanian border crossing Monday. Over the weekend, aid officials said, 15,000 others crossed into Albania.

The number of Kosovo Albanians now outside the province comprises 745,000 refugees in Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro (the smaller Yugoslav republic) and Bosnia-Herzegovina; an additional 36,000 who have been taken to other countries; and 124,000 who fled before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing started March 24.

Few of the recent arrivals have had enough respite from their ordeal to learn of the progress and setbacks of NATO's battle with Milosevic's forces, let alone the diplomatic forays that have raised the prospect of a negotiated solution.

After 10 years of Serbian nationalist domination of the province, which was 90% ethnic Albanian, the displaced are broadly distrustful of any deal that would allow even a token presence of the Serbian police officers who have expelled them and burned their homes.

"Milosevic wants to make Kosovo his own territory without the Albanian people," insisted Musa Zhilivoda, a 56-year-old cafe owner whose house and business in the northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica were burned down by Serbian paramilitary gunmen two weeks ago.

The Group of 8, consisting of the world's chief industrialized nations and Russia, has fashioned a peace plan that would allow refugees to return protected by an international security force. But Milosevic has insisted that 11,000 Serbian troops also remain in the province as police officers and border guards.

"I will go back one day, but not as long as the Serbs are there," Muharrem Elshane said as he herded eight family members onto a bus at the Morine border crossing to be taken to Kukes.

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