Macedonia ejects Kosovo refugees

Meanwhile, refugees inside Yugoslavia sent home at gunpoint

War In Yugoslavia

April 08, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Kosovar refugees, packed in for days on both sides of the border, terrorized by Yugoslav paramilitaries on one side and penned into a mud-slopped river bend on the other, were driven away yesterday.

Crowds and filth and the noise of desperate people and hungry babies gave way to emptiness and quiet.

The Yugoslav police, at gunpoint, forced thousands of Albanian Kosovars back toward their homes, having spent two weeks rousting them out.

Western governments feared they are to be used as human shields.

And in an overnight stroke, Macedonian authorities emptied the hellish no man's land at a place called Blace, where Albanian Kosovar refugees had been held since the weekend -- and they weren't very particular about how they did it.

Bitterly criticizing the West for leaving their small, fragile country exposed to more than 100,000 refugees, they packed up the Albanians and set right to work deporting them elsewhere yesterday.

About 10,000 were sent in buses directly to a small town in Albania.

The others from Blace went into transit camps built by NATO, enlarging the biggest camp overnight from 16,000 to 44,000 people.

By afternoon, buses were taking them to flights for Turkey and Germany.

The Macedonians worked in silence and offered little explanation.

More Albanian families were separated, with no way of tracking each other down. Aid workers said they had no idea where people had gone.

"We are very distressed and concerned," said Paula Ghedini, of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

"These movements should be completely voluntary."

Macedonian officials said they were voluntary. Reports from refugees arriving in Turkey and Albania suggested the opposite.

The suddenness of the Macedonian operation was in stark contrast to the indecision that for days had left thousands of people helplessly stranded in the packed field at Blace.

Only one man left

At midafternoon yesterday, when it was all over, a small team of Albanian volunteers donned gas masks and descended into the muck there. They stood along the silent, fetid slope where hours before 40,000 refugees had been encamped.

They were looking for anything that might be usable, before the bulldozers came.

They found one old man, disoriented and alone. Gently, they guided him to the Red Cross tent at the top of the hill. Where his family was, no one knew.

For several days, aid workers and Macedonians had worried about thousands more refugees at the border still inside Yugoslavia.

But yesterday the Serbs closed the crossings into Albania and Macedonia, and the crowds all along the border disappeared.

A few refugees who managed to slip across said that Serbian police were forcing people to return to their homes in Kosovo, at gunpoint.

Mines and fortifications

In Morini, where a road crosses into Albania, Yugoslav border guards were seen laying what appeared to be mines and digging fortifications just inside their territory.

"The refugees were told to return to their places of residence, whatever is left of those places," Doran Vienneau of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been monitoring the border, told the Associated Press.

One frustrated volunteer in Tetovo, Macedonia, an ethnic Albanian named Llokman Hasani, accused the Macedonian authorities of conspiring with the government of Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic to break up Kosovar families and ensure their dispersal out of the Balkans.

"That's the biggest tragedy, when you don't know where your daughter is, or your wife, or your father," he said.

"Macedonians showed with these things they did to the Kosovar Albanians that Milosevic calls the shots here."

Being `very careful'

Macedonian government officials deny that.

"Macedonia has to be very careful -- toward Serbia, toward the Albanians and toward NATO," said Ljuben Paunosri, an official in the Internal Revolutionary Party of Macedonia (known as the VMRO), which dominates a coalition government.

The country, he said, has limited territory and limited means with which to take care of the refugees -- 125,000 were still here last night after a day of deportations.

"From the material side and from the psychological side," he said, Macedonia is stretched thin. "What about the daily functioning of our state?"

Small country, big problems

Macedonia, a small former Yugoslav republic that peaceably broke free from Yugoslavia in 1991, has a population of 2 million, an army that the Defense Ministry says ranges from 10,000 to 15,000 men, an air force with no planes, and a name that its big neighbor, Greece, refuses to recognize, as an affront to Greek Macedonia.

It has a plummeting gross domestic product and an unemployment rate that appears to be about 40 percent.

It sits in the heart of a region torn by war and "ethnic cleansing."

"Every instability in the Balkans is hurting us as well, even though we neither caused nor took part in these problems," said a Defense Ministry spokesman, Georgi Trendafilov.

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