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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Red Tape Untangled, Teen Refugee Red-Eyed After Seeing Family

May 14, 1999|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MUNICH, Germany — After five weeks of loneliness, hard luck and tears, Mentor Hoti on Thursday finally was reunited with his family.

After the 14-year-old refugee from Kosovo cleared customs at the airport here, he put on a brave face for his father and favorite brother, Basri. Each got a quick hug and a handshake.

But once Mentor arrived at the apartment to join the rest of his 11-member family, teen bravado failed him. Huge sobs shook his body. Tears coursed down his face. He wrapped his arms fiercely around one brother, then another.

His ordeal was over. "You don't have to cry anymore," said his father, Iliaz. "We're all together again."

But the 60-year-old father's emotions betrayed him a moment later. His eyes turned red and watered.

"I've suffered a lot in my life," he said. "I have been poor and I have been in war. But this--this was the worst thing I have ever felt."

Added Mentor's 45-year-old mother, Ajmane: "I never thought this day would really come."

Neither did many aid workers. After a seemingly endless string of snafus by government officials, humanitarian agencies and even his family, Mentor had come to symbolize the thousands of ethnic Albanian refugee families split apart by the crisis and the tremendous bureaucratic obstacles blocking their reunification.

A shy, uneducated boy who spent much of his young life as a shepherd, Mentor was lost in a world completely beyond his understanding and seemingly indifferent to his plight.

"It's a solved case. And with a solved case, there's always relief," said Caroline Spannuth, a U.N. refugee worker who turned Mentor's situation into something of a personal crusade.

After North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes began March 24, Mentor's family fled toward Macedonia ahead of advancing Yugoslav forces.

After a week spent in a miserable, muddy valley straddling the Yugoslav-Macedonian border, Mentor ventured out to find food for the family. In the process, he tried to help a little girl who had fainted, carrying her out of a crowd to seek medical help.

But when he tried to rejoin his family, a Macedonian guard blocked him and put him on a bus to a refugee camp about 10 miles from the border with Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic. He eventually wound up with distant relatives in a cramped, dank tent in one of the Balkans' biggest camps.

His reunion with his family was blocked by a series of mishaps. First, Mentor's family left for Germany without him. Then, Red Cross officials lost his file. Finally, the German Embassy in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, refused to make an exception for his case, forcing him to wait a week for a special visa.

"It's absolutely unnecessary what happened," Spannuth said.

Mentor's final trek back to his family continued the pattern of administrative hassles. It began at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday when visitors woke him and didn't end until about 29 hours later, when he finally arrived in the German city of Munich.

His luggage was a plastic grocery bag. Inside: a sweater, a notebook, a T-shirt and an English phrase book. He gave his only other possession, a warmup suit, to a friend in the camp.

As he said his goodbyes to the family with whom he has lived for five weeks, Mentor smiled repeatedly. For the first time in weeks, he seemed happy.

But the giddiness didn't last long. The first disappointment came at the Skopje airport, when Macedonian border officials refused to let Mentor depart without a special visa stamp.

After the plane left without him, U.N. officials paid an emergency visit to high-ranking officials in Macedonia's state police headquarters to get the visa. Three hours later, Mentor was back at the airport for a later flight to Munich.

This time, however, the travel agency had erred, booking a flight that would have stranded Mentor in another German city overnight. U.N. refugee officials said they couldn't allow a minor to remain without care for such a long period of time.

U.N. and refugee workers huddled again, working two cellular phones at once to secure a flight to Germany. Finally, around 2 p.m., they found space on the day's last flight to Munich, through the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, on a business-class ticket.

The last development led to several surreal scenes as Mentor, three weeks past his last bath and clad in a filthy blue hat and Fila sweatpants, sat down in the stuffed leather seats of the executive lounge among the laptops and business suits of the upper-class, Euro-businessman set.

After dining on the complimentary chocolate-covered raisins and fruit nectar, Mentor walked across the runway to take the first plane trip of his life. He covered his ears when the jet engines revved. As the plane lifted off, a broad smile crossed Mentor's face. "Oh yes," he said. "It's loud like a tractor."

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