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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Relief Officials Seek to Move Refugees

Albania: Many are reluctant to leave camps in Kukes, which are close to their homes in Kosovo.

May 16, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUKES, Albania — Hot showers, flush toilets and three square meals a day make the United Arab Emirates camp here a veritable five-star resort for bedraggled Kosovo refugees, but the $3-million oasis may nevertheless be forced to fold its tents and move elsewhere.

Pressure has been applied to those giving and getting refuge here to relocate from this tense border region, where more than 100,000 Kosovars have amassed after escaping the hostility and gunfire in their homeland.

A mass evacuation by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has taken less than 10% of the displaced Kosovars southward since it began Friday, but officials of the refugee agency expect the pace to accelerate as new accommodations for 160,000 people, being built along Albania's coastline, open to offer the refugees more safety while they wait for peace.

"We have always said that refugee camps shouldn't be set up on borders. There is the risk of shelling, the risk of spillover of the conflict and the risk of infiltration of non-refugee elements," said Melita Sunjic, a U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman, alluding to the Kosovo Liberation Army rebels using the border camps as recruiting grounds.

About 5,000 Kosovars left Kukes each day on Friday and Saturday, and, for the first time since the refugee crisis exploded with the start of NATO bombing on March 24, the number of newly arrived refugees was far lower than the number departing, Sunjic said Saturday.

Officials of the Kukes regional government have also urged the camps to move southward because of this area's severe shortage of potable water and the burden imposed on the sanitation and electricity services in a town that had only 25,000 residents a year ago.

The cracks and booms of artillery fire on the Kosovo-Albania border only a few miles away can be heard day and night in the packed refugee camps, and several incidents in which Serbian gunmen raided a pair of nearby hamlets left two Albanian civilians dead and others wounded last week.

Raw sewage gurgles along sidewalk curbs in the town's garbage-strewn center, and human waste befouls planted cropland and fallow fields where spontaneous refugee camps have emerged as the newest arrivals have found no more room at the official centers.

Health and security risks cited by those urging refugees to leave are unquestionably valid, but many speculate that NATO is also pushing the evacuation--to open the way for assaults by Apache helicopters on Serbian forces at the border without so much risk of "collateral damage." The attack aircraft have mostly been idle since arriving in Tirana, Albania's capital, a month ago. Crews resumed training sorties and are said to be readying for live-fire operations within a few days.

While none of the artillery shells fired by the Serbs from the other side of the towering Koritnik mountain ridge have come anywhere near the refugee camps, refugee agency spokesman Ray Wilkinson said the risk of massive casualties is too grave to ignore.

"It's the cry-wolf syndrome, isn't it? If something happens, we'll be accused of not having heeded the warnings," said Wilkinson, who has been going tent to tent in the worst of the camps to encourage refugees to join escorted convoys. "There are artillery exchanges here every night, and we have to act on the 1% chance that a shell could land in the middle of one of these settlements and we'd have another Sarajevo."

Bosnian Serb gunmen aligned with the Yugoslav forces now killing and expelling Kosovars were responsible for a number of attacks on Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, during that nation's 1992-95 civil war. Many observers believe it was such gunmen who fired an artillery shell into a marketplace in the city in February 1994 that killed nearly 70 people and wounded hundreds.

Despite the dangers here, only those sleeping in the open or under plastic sheets stretched from their rickety trucks and tractors are being swayed by the call to move out.

"We don't even have a place to eat here away from the odors, and my family hasn't been able to bathe since we arrived," said Isa Hoxha, one of thousands of refugees squatting on a foul, muddy field known as Tractor Camp. "We would rather stay near Kosovo, but we cannot survive in such conditions."

About 2,000 residents left Tractor Camp on Saturday after being provided with gasoline and a NATO military escort for the 100-mile journey from Kukes to Lezhe, where Danish troops have built a camp near the Adriatic coast.

Most of the refugees in Kukes, especially the 9,000 cradled in the relative luxury of the United Arab Emirates camp, are refusing to leave for fear of missing relatives who have not yet crossed into safety or of being too far from their homes.

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