Exodus filled with fear, misery

Having emptied villages, Serbs `cleanse' Pristina

War In Yugoslavia

April 02, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MORINA PASS, Albania -- Bukurie Gashi trembled yesterday as she recalled a night of bombs, gunshots and births.

Along with thousands of other ethnic Albanians, she was herded last night to the train station in Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina.

NATO bombs were dropping and Serbian police and paramilitaries were shooting over the heads of refugees as the city was gripped by fear and plunged into darkness by a blackout.

But Gashi, a 30-year-old medical student, worked hard. Shielded by other refugees, lying on blankets covering the dirty floor, a 35-year-old woman was bringing a new life into this insane environment.

By the flicker of candles and matches, with only a tranquilizer to ease her pain, the woman gave birth as Gashi used household scissors sterilized in fire to cut the umbilical cord.

When Serbian police discovered the birth, Gashi said, they sneered, "Name the baby NATO."

This was just one story among thousands as Pristina's ethnic Albanians told of their ordeal in being booted out of town by Serbian security forces in a massive and miserable exodus, the scale of which hasn't been seen in Europe in 50 years.

In scenes evocative of World War II, thousands of Pristina's former citizens trudged on foot across Yugoslavia's border with Albania yesterday.

Many more waited in cars in a line that stretched some 10 miles north of the Albanian border.

Stripped of their citizenship documents, cash and jewelry, they arrived bearing meager possessions and frightening tales, as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic pressed ahead with the campaign to rid Kosovo of its non-Serb population.

Before NATO launched its bombing campaign last week, ethnic Albanians out numbered Serbs 9-to-1 in Kosovo.

But now, there is no way of knowing how many ethnic Albanians are left in the Serbian province, since scores of thousands of refugees are on the move, herded to borders by Serbian security forces.

Most of the refugees are being systematically funneled into Albania, Europe's poorest country, which has a crumbling infrastructure.

With the world watching, Milosevic has created the humanitarian catastrophe that NATO bombs were supposed to prevent.

As refugees arrived here yesterday, overwhelmed humanitarian workers passed out meager rations of water, bread and baby food.

Men who hadn't eaten in days eagerly gulped down mashed peaches for infants. A hillside where weary refugees clustered was littered with empty water bottles, cans of beef, soiled diapers and other debris.

Biblical proportions

"Before I got here, the only thing I had seen like this were biblical stories, back some centuries before Year One," said Anila Mjeda, a project officer for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.

The humanitarian operation looked more free lance than organized.

Sister Bernadette Ebenhoch, 43, a Franciscan nun, showed up with vitamins, crackers and 200 loaves of bread.

"The first aid for refugees is bread," she said.

Mathias Schreiber, 36, a missionary with a local Christian church, handed out bottles of water.

"It's all too much and not well organized," he said. "Why don't we have a truck with water here? We need blankets, mattresses, diapers.

"They say 50,000 more people are on the way. But no one knows exactly. People are waiting 10, 12, 13 hours to get in."

Brazen expulsions

It was difficult to absorb the fact that this is a place in Europe on the eve of the next millennium.

After clearing out ethnic Albanian villages, Milosevic's most brazen expulsions got under way Tuesday, according to refugees, as ethnic Albanians were taken from their cultural and political hub in Pristina.

Some were placed on trains bound for Macedonia. Others were put on buses to Prizren and Zhura, in Kosovo, and from there they had to walk across the Albanian border.

Pristina, the dusty city that lies in a valley, is now effectively a Serb city, according to arriving refugees.

"At this moment, Pristina has no ethnic Albanians," said Fadil Gashi, the medical student's 32-year-old brother, who is a journalist.

Refugees described a city in the grip of Serbian police, military, paramilitaries and armed civilians, as ethnic Albanians were rounded up from one neighborhood to the next.

They claimed that Serbs stole cars and burned houses and shops belonging to ethnic Albanians.

They described Serbs using tanks to shell the city by day, while NATO bombs dropped at night. And they told of being corralled at the train station and main soccer stadium.

"We were afraid we would get killed by the Serbs," said 26-year-old Arsim Sulkishi, a carpenter. "Whoever didn't leave their houses were hit or shot. The most beautiful houses were burned."

On the charred buildings, he said, the Serbs wrote a traditional Cyrillic insignia that bears the legend, "Only Unity Saves the Serbs."

"At our quarter, special forces and paramilitary knocked at the door and entered the house," Fadil Gashi said. "They ordered us to leave in 15 minutes and go to the train station.

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