Death of small village helps show magnitude of exodus in Kosovo String of ghost towns is left in the wake of 4-week Serbian assault

August 13, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

REZALA, Yugoslavia -- Hana Zabeli, an 85-year-old invalid, died alone last week. So did her village.

Life ended for this ethnic Albanian settlement and its oldest inhabitant on the day Serbian paramilitary police struck, burning dozens of homes and shooting Zabeli in her bed.

Zabeli and her village were abandoned in the same panic that has emptied scores of Albanian communities during an anti-guerrilla sweep of Serbia's separatist-minded Kosovo province, uprooting more than one-tenth of its 2 million people.

Serbian officials have said their summer assault is aimed at clearing guerrilla roadblocks from Kosovo's highways. But the attack on Rezala and other villages in the Drenica Valley, far from any main road, appeared to serve no military purpose.

With the assault in its fourth week, the number of ghost towns is growing so fast that relief agencies say they cannot keep up with -- much less help -- a scattering population in urgent need of food, clean water, medicine and shelter.

More than 3,000 people fleeing Rezala and nearby settlements have spilled into a forest clearing seven miles away and set up flimsy lean-tos of logs covered with leafy branches. All of those encountered in the camp said they were afraid to go home, even though the Serbs have withdrawn from the area. Many do not know whether their houses are standing.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's troops are fighting not so much for a military objective or to "cleanse" the province of its Albanian majority, Western analysts say, but simply to punish the supporters of the Kosovo Liberation Army -- and to demonstrate the rebel group's inability to defend the residents.

Serbian police and Yugoslav troops have driven guerrillas and civilians from village after village, leaving behind smoking ruins, a residue of fear and a death toll of about 550 in five months of fighting.

'Nowhere is safe'

According to a survey by the Albanian-led Independent Trade Union of Kosovo, 283 settlements have been abandoned by most of their inhabitants.

"Nowhere is safe in Kosovo," said Fazile Syla, 49, a widow who has been sleeping in the forest clearing for a week with two of her grandchildren. "But it's safer out here than waiting for Serbian rockets to crash through the roof."

Kosovo consists of one city, 17 towns and hundreds of villages dotting a hilly landscape. Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1 but hold no power. Nearly all of them back the armed rebels' demand for independence from Serbia, the larger of the two Yugoslav republics.

The destruction of Rezala helps show the magnitude of the exodus -- the largest in Europe since the Yugoslav federation's bloody breakup in the early 1990s -- and the Albanians' reluctance to reclaim their homes.

Zabeli's son, Zeqir, said that he, his wife and four children awoke to the Serbian attack. "They were grenading and shooting from all sides," he said. Most of the village's 6,000 civilians, along with a small guerrilla force that had been resisting the Serbs outside the village, had left the day before.

Zeqir Zabeli chose to leave without his mother, mostly paralyzed by a stroke seven years ago, in hopes of saving the rest of the family.

"I got my wife and children out. We ran. It is a choice I will have to live with," he said.

He returned to find his mother shot dead.

Homecoming discouraged

The guerrillas have survived the Serbian sweep and reclaimed their Drenica Valley headquarters. But as they dig in for a long conflict, they are not encouraging a quick civilian homecoming.

Left alone in a string of ghost towns, the guerrillas can wage hit-and-run attacks on the government. "We can operate more freely without the civilians here," said Rezala's 25-year-old rebel commander, whose nom de guerre is Mali. "We don't have to worry about protecting them."

That's no comfort to the people in the clearing -- victims of a catastrophe that can only worsen with the coming autumn rains and snowy Balkan winter.

For more than a week, the camp's population has ebbed and flowed as people moved in search of better shelter or arrived from newly emptied villages.

Mans Nyberg, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, estimated that the conflict has uprooted 231,000 people, 167,000 of whom remain in Kosovo. Nobody knows where they have all gone, he said, although at least five camps of 1,000 or more have been spotted in the wilderness.

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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