Macedonians finding space for ethnic brothers on run

With 56 refugees in home, one host promises, `I will gladly even accept more'

War In Yugoslavia

April 03, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Ismail Samakova may have set a record for hospitality.

Thousands of Macedonian Albanians have opened their doors to their ethnic brothers and sisters who have been forced out of neighboring Kosovo by Serbian forces. But it is difficult to imagine that anyone has opened his doors wider than Samakova.

He has welcomed 56 refugees across the threshold of the modest compound that he shares with his two younger brothers and their families in a poor neighborhood of Skopje, Macedonia's capital.

Samakova shrugged when asked about his generosity and nonchalantly mentioned that he was expecting 24 more refugees, distant relatives.

He hopes they are in the long line of refugees backed up on the Yugoslav side of the border waiting to get out.

"I will gladly even accept more refugees," said Samakova, who already has people sleeping on most of the floor space in the two-house compound with a concrete courtyard.

"It's better to be in any house, even a crowded one, than to be under the open sky," he added.

Fleeing fire

The refugees, most of them Samakova's cousins or uncles, were forced from two villages in Kosovo not far from the border with Macedonia.

Serbian soldiers were burning some of their animals alive, had set fire to their houses and warned them they would be killed if they did not flee. They walked seven or eight hours over hilly terrain carrying children in their arms to reach safety.

The Macedonian Albanian community is much more willing than most others in the modern world to open their homes to relatives and strangers in need, said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is heading the international relief effort.

The people of Albania, where even more refugees from Kosovo have ended up in recent days, have exhibited similar selfless hospitality.

`Amazing' hospitality

"It's amazing," Janowski said. "You see that kind of attitude only in Africa. This kind of attitude in Europe is almost extinct.

"The local Albanian leaders insist they want to do this," Janowski said. "But the Macedonian government is quite nervous about it. They don't want to change the population structure."

About 23 percent of Macedonia's 2 million people are ethnic Albanian.

Many ethnic Macedonians, who make up the majority of the population, are not shy about expressing their reluctance to see the Albanian population grow -- even temporarily. Non-Albanian Macedonians do not appear to be taking in Albanian refugees from Kosovo in any significant numbers, international aid workers said.

Everyone pitches in

But Samakova was too busy watching over his outsize household by day and doing his factory job by night to worry about the sentiments of people in other neighborhoods of Skopje.

The older children attend local school, but the adults are not permitted to work.

The 20 or so younger children and the household chores keep the women busy. But the men are restless. And, accustomed to the space and freedom of the countryside, the children are fidgety and cranky in their confined concrete world.

A local relief agency, El Hilal, which means "New Moon," has supplied him with some food. But Samakova, who works at a construction materials factory, is clearly bearing quite a financial burden.

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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