Kosovo's exiles vowing to return

Fate of their families may temper defiance

April 07, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TETOVO, Macedonia -- The Kosovar Albanians want to tell the world they're not going away.

It may be true, as a refugee named Fatlum Mauraj put it, that "all you can see in Pristina now are dogs and militia." But the 25-year-old student vows he'll be back in the now-deserted Kosovo capital, and the sooner the better.

The "ethnic cleansing" of an entire province -- an entire would-be nation -- will not stand, say those who were driven out. Their defiance is universal. But reality lies in the particulars. What happens to them now, and in the next few weeks, is a concrete question that's tugging at every divided family, every worried parent and every terrorized victim of Serbian paramilitaries. And it's a question that's demanding the world's attention as well.

Skender Bytyqi, 38, was sitting in a cafe here yesterday, chain-smoking, his hands shaking, wondering what's become of his wife and four children.

The six of them were put on a train in Pristina on March 31 after giving up their car, money and jewelry. They spent seven terrifying hours stopped in the night between train stations, with police lining one side of the tracks and masked paramilitaries on the other. Finally the train lurched forward again, but in the crush at the border, they were separated.

Bytyqi spent four days in the hellish Blace camp, at the Kosovo-Macedonia border, and then was processed out. He moved in with relatives here. He fears the rest of his family may have been turned back that first night, may never have entered Macedonia.

"I don't know where they are now," he said. "And this is not an individual case. I think most families are separated."

Across northern Macedonia and eastern Albania, thousands of people are looking for each other. Sometimes someone turns a corner and a reunion happens right on the street. But that's not going to happen to the thousands of people who are stuck in refugee camps. And as of yesterday there was no way for them to communicate with the outside world.

"The first thing has to be to get families together again," said Bytyqi.

But the second and third things, and fourth and fifth, will come pushing close behind. People need to decide where they want to live, what they want to do, whether to enroll their children in school. And each decision carries implications for the future. It's one thing to move in with relatives in Macedonia. It's another to board a flight to Norway.

Ridvan Jusufi's 10-year-old daughter has started school in Macedonia. Lule Salmani won't send her children to school here because, she says, they belong in their own schools -- by which she means the ones back home, in Pristina.

A few days ago such worries were a luxury. But 16,000 people moved into the camp built by NATO troops at Brazda on Monday night, and Macedonian officials were letting about 1,000 people an hour out of the Blace border camp yesterday.

Julie Chen, with the Skopje, Macedonia, office of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, said the pressure has been eased at Blace, and with NATO help supplies coming into Brazda and other camps will be adequate at least until another wave of refugees crosses from Yugoslavia and overwhelms everything again. By tomorrow evening, airlifted supplies should also be on their way to refugees in Kukes, Albania.

So now thoughts can turn, if only slightly, to the future.

"Our people are still near Kosovo, in Albania and Macedonia," said Bytyqi. "That's an advantage, because it will be easier to go back."

Said Salmani, who with 19 others is staying at the Heart of Christ Roman Catholic Church in Skopje: "We'd like to stay near. But we are such a burden here."

She has relatives working in Austria and hopes somehow to join them.

The Albanian government has said it won't allow flights of refugees to other countries -- such as those to Turkey and Norway that have flown from Skopje -- because it would represent an implicit acceptance of Yugoslav ethnic cleansing. But Arben Khaferi, an Albanian politician in Macedonia who is an adamant advocate of Albanian rights, remarked yesterday, "Any solution is better than to stay in Blace."

In any case, the Macedonian government, controlled by the 70 percent Slavic majority, has made it clear it won't be allowing large numbers of Kosovar Albanians to settle permanently here.

But returning to Kosovo does depend on a NATO victory. Even before Belgrade's announcement yesterday that it would order a cease-fire and was inviting refugees to return, none of those interviewed said they would consider going back without the forcible removal of Serbian authority.

"It's just not possible," said Mehmet Kaqekolla.

If NATO does not prevail, that will present the world with 350,000 or more permanent refugees. David Holdridge, also of Catholic Relief Services, said Western aid agencies would have to tackle everything from school-improvement efforts (especially in poverty-stricken Albania) to shelter programs.

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