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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

For Refugees, Satisfaction and a Small Bit of Hope

Indictment: Some call Milosevic being charged with war crimes too little too late. They worry if they will ever get home.

May 28, 1999|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STANKOVAC, Macedonia — Kosovo Albanian refugees nodded with grim satisfaction as the public address system at this camp blared the news Thursday that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had been indicted on war crimes charges.

Finally, they said, the West will crush Milosevic.

"Now maybe NATO will get the garbage out of Kosovo," said Zekir Arifi, a 38-year-old unemployed truck driver, referring to Serbian forces. "He will be arrested and sent by force to The Hague and punished."

Conversations with refugees who heard the news, especially younger ones, gave little doubt that the desire for revenge washed away any practical considerations, such as whether Milosevic would ever be arrested and what his indictment might mean for the prospects of a speedy peace deal.

In fact, the recent talk of possible moves toward peace had made many ethnic Albanians fearful that the West would cave in to Milosevic, leaving the refugees returning to Kosovo vulnerable to renewed attacks by Serbs.

"Now they [NATO countries] cannot negotiate with him; he cannot be at the table with NATO," said Driton Dula, 19, a university student from Pristina, who stopped playing a pickup game of basketball and chatting with friends when the evening radio broadcast came on.

"We are happy about what is happening to the Serbs. We are happy that NATO is destroying the Serb military machine," he said. "We couldn't do that for hundreds--for thousands--of years, but they are doing a great job because they are working for peace."

Beton Cenolli, 27, who was standing nearby, nodded his assent. His sister was arrested by Serbian soldiers in mid-April on the grounds her husband was a member of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army. At the time, Cenolli's brother-in-law was working in Germany. Cenolli had to pay nearly $3,000 to get his sister released.

"They are not allowed to make an agreement with a war criminal. I am so happy it has happened--at last," Cenolli said.

As the younger men talked excitedly, two older men squatted on the cracked ground, cocking their heads to hear the news. But they found small comfort in it.

"We are very suspicious that this can affect the current situation," said Shefik Hoxha, 73, a villager from southeastern Kosovo. "Milosevic has burned villages--he has done every imaginable crime. It's too late, and it seems to us that it will be a long time before we go back to our homes."

After the broadcast, the young men returned to their basketball game, but the two older men listened attentively to the next item of news, which was about 61 refugees who had arrived Wednesday night at the Macedonian border after being held by Serbian soldiers for more than a month.

"They were emaciated, extremely dirty and in very poor shape," said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The prisoners were forced to share among four men a daily ration consisting of a loaf of bread and a bowl of soup, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program said.

The report was the second case in recent days of men who had been held prisoner by the Serbs being permitted to leave Kosovo, and in both cases the men's condition was reminiscent of that of the Bosnian Muslims who were interned in concentration camps by Serbs during Bosnia-Herzegovina's war earlier this decade.

An hour away in the bustling town of Tetovo, where journalists from Kosovo now publish the daily newspaper they once published at home, the comparisons with Bosnia loomed large.

Although former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were indicted years ago by the international tribunal in the Netherlands, they still have not been arrested.

"The first thought is . . . that this [indictment] is a sign that there won't be a compromise, but the second thought is that, even though they indicted people for war crimes in Bosnia, some of the biggest names are still free and there is very little chance of capturing them now," said Agron Bajrami, the deputy editor of Koha Ditore.

"People are beginning to lose faith in the United Nations, the international court at The Hague. They just issue pieces of paper," Bajrami said. "After all, indicting Milosevic doesn't mean the refugees will go back home tomorrow."

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