Refugee woes: finding lost relatives

Macedonians use lists in effort to reunite Albanians, families

War In Yugoslavia

April 09, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BOJANE, Macedonia -- It didn't take long for Albert Buja to sour on the refugee camp here, so yesterday he struggled under the chicken-wire fence and walked into town. Now -- with no money and no papers -- he must set out to find his family, who could be in any of half a dozen camps in Macedonia.

Or they could be in Turkey, or Germany, or Norway.

Buja is 16.

In time, the International Committee of the Red Cross plans to set up a database so the thousands of Albanian Kosovar refugees who have been separated from their families in the chaos of the past two weeks can track them down.

For now, Buja has himself to rely on -- and the extraordinary help and friendship of Macedonia's ethnic Albanians.

The shock of the Serb roundups and forced expulsion of 350,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo is starting to wear off. Now this community of exiles -- further disrupted by the sudden decision here in Macedonia to spread people arbitrarily through camps, cart 10,000 or more off to Albania and put another few thousand on planes to other countries -- is trying to put its families back together.

Local people are drawing up lists, driving from camp to camp, spreading the word. Many of the 60,000 refugees who have been put up in private homes and are free to travel have been making the rounds of the camps, assembling whatever information they can obtain.

Adriatik Imani, a refugee at a camp set up by German and Dutch soldiers in Neprosteno, was working at a table at the entrance yesterday where people could come in to see if their relatives had been registered there. Many went away disappointed, but there were plenty of tearful reunions.

Imani seemed downright cheerful for someone who had been ousted from his home in Pristina, herded onto a train and dumped into the encampment at Blace with 70,000 others before finally getting to a decent place with nearly adequate food.

He mentioned, almost in passing, that when his father fell ill at Blace he had to carry him to a Red Cross tent. While they were there, his mother and sister were put onto buses and carried off. Imani has no idea where they are.

But even when a husband finds a wife, or a mother a daughter, the Macedonian police are under orders not to let the camp inmates out. The government is adamant that it doesn't want to play host to a flood of Albanian Kosovars. Relatives are allowed to visit, but not to be reunited.

Escapes are common

Orders, though, are one thing; reality is another. The police presence at these camps is fairly light. Buja scrambled out in midafternoon with three others and strolled away. At night the escapers in Bojane number in the dozens at least, from a camp that yesterday had 2,300 people in it.

One man at Bojane, according to a British soldier there, escaped and walked into town so he could find somewhere to take a shower. Clean and refreshed, he walked back to the camp -- and the police wouldn't let him in.

At the camp in Radusha, a remote village in a deep river valley about a mile from the Yugoslav border, possibly hundreds are going over, under and through the fence every day. Some are leaving to be with relatives. Others go to seek them out.

Buja was a high school student in Pristina, Kosovo's capital. It seems like a lifetime ago, but in fact it was April 1 that he and his parents, together with his brother and sister-in-law and their two children, were crammed into an already packed train and sent to Macedonia.

They were at the border pen at Blace for three days, living in the mud and rain with almost nothing to eat or drink. On the third day, Buja collapsed, and stretcher-bearers from an Albanian volunteer organization called El Hilal carried him to the Red Cross tent. That was the last he saw of his family.

On April 5 he was taken to the just-opened camp at Bojane, which had been constructed by the Macedonian government and then partially reconstructed by troops from the British Army's Royal Engineers.

The police are responsible for access and security while the British have essentially been running the camp, with help from relief agencies and a committee they set up of camp residents. But the soldiers will be pulling out in a few days and turning the administration over entirely to the private groups. The Germans are doing the same at Neprosteno.

"The British are fine, really fine," said Buja. "It's great with them. They help so much." Food has not been an issue, and hot meals will start perhaps as soon as today, brought up from Skopje in giant thermoses by the group called Action Against Hunger.

Long-term effort needed

But relief workers are concerned about the inevitable letdown in attention that follows a crisis like this.

The 2,000 people at Bojane were issued 15,000 loaves of bread the first day, and much of it had to be thrown out. But will there be even 1,000 loaves to go around tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on for weeks to come?

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