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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Conflicted Kosovo Refugees Clamoring to Leave Camps

May 18, 1999|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRAZDA, Macedonia — Returning to Kosovo seemed just around the corner to the refugees here when they first arrived in Macedonia, where the camps are barely a 10-minute drive from the mountainous border.

But now, with NATO's air war on Yugoslavia ending its eighth week, thousands of refugees are clamoring to get on flights to foreign countries. And as more and more people bid farewell to family members and fellow villagers, they are a weeping testament to the reality that while escape is a relief, what is happening now is a Kosovar diaspora.

Morning, noon and night, ethnic Albanians from Kosovo cluster around the information boards set up in open spaces between the tents of the Brazda camp to search for their names on flight lists.

They stand in line for hours in the blazing spring sun just to get a five-minute interview with a host country's representative in the hope that it will help guarantee them a place. They approach anyone walking through the camp with a notebook and ask that their names be put on the list--for Germany, for Sweden, for Switzerland, for almost anywhere but here.

"As the hot weather settles in, they start losing hope that they will get home soon," said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Initially, only a few countries were offering to take refugees--two weeks ago, no more than 400 people a day left the camps, and many refugees were reluctant to go for fear that the war would end in a matter of days and they would find themselves far from their villages and homes.

But in the past week, the number of countries offering places to the refugees has risen to 30, and 1,500 to 2,400 people leave every day. As of Monday, just shy of 50,000 people had left the Macedonian refugee camps, according to Anki Ericksson, a humanitarian evacuation specialist with the U.N. refugee agency.

The largest group has gone to Germany, which has already taken 11,300 people, but more than 7,000 have gone to Turkey, 3,600 to Norway and roughly 3,000 to the United States, France, Canada and Austria. Smaller numbers have gone to other countries.

The humanitarian evacuation program is available only to refugees in Macedonia and was set up in large part because of protests by the government that the refugee influx was in danger of destabilizing the country's fragile political balance between the more than 25% who are ethnic Albanians and the 65% who are ethnic Macedonian.

However, the process of getting out is at best random and at worst another trauma. In the beginning, some refugees were swindled into paying bribes to people who falsely promised to get them coveted places on flights to West European countries, according to U.N. refugee agency officials. Now, stricter rules have been put in place to ensure that doesn't happen, but the sense of confusion persists.

Enver Bytyqi, 42, a construction worker from a small town in central Kosovo, huddled with his wife, four children, his mother, and an aunt and uncle in the pale dawn light waiting for instructions about which bus to board for Sunday's flight to Canada.

Their names had been posted the night before on a list for Canada, and although their first choice was Germany and their second the United States, when they found their names on the flight for Canada, they did not even try to change it. They were relieved to be able to get out at all.

"We have no relatives there," Bytyqi said in a low voice, "but my mother is sick. For her sake, we must leave the camp as soon as possible."

His mother, a 67-year-old homemaker, sat on a blanket on the ground, grasping a rough wooden cane in one hand. The journey to Macedonia was the first time in her life that she had left her village.

Like many of the hundreds of refugees waiting to leave, Bytyqi had been told nothing about the country his family was going to. As a reporter turned to leave, he asked: "Do you know what the conditions are like in Canada? What is the food like? What will it be like for my children?"

A few feet away, the Rexhepi family prepared to travel to Germany. The family members, who fled to Macedonia from a small farming village in Kosovo, have lived together all their lives; even when the daughters married, they were only a house or two away from where they were born. But Xhezide Rexhepi, 56, was preparing to say goodbye, perhaps forever, to her oldest daughter, who did not get a place on the flight to Germany and was going instead to Canada.

As an aid worker called out names for the various buses, Xhezide wept silently and held her daughter's arm.

The fear of losing family and community is well-founded. In every conflict involving refugees, a percentage never return to their native country, said Maki Shinohara, a spokeswoman in Geneva for the U.N. refugee agency. For instance, 70% of the 1.2 million refugees who fled Bosnia-Herzegovina are still in foreign countries; 500,000 of them have legal permanent status to remain in their new homes and are unlikely to ever return.

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