Refugees settle into Yugoslav resort city

Sudden influx of 23,000 may try the patience of Montenegrin town

April 11, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ULCINJ, Yugoslavia -- Visar Jakupi's holiday from war is filled with sun, sand and misery.

He's among thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees in this lovely sea resort city carved into an Adriatic cove. The dark-haired 20-year-old is frantic to find his parents and rebuild a life he once had in Pec, a Kosovo city that was cleared and smashed by Serbian security forces.

"I am only thinking about my family, the troubles, my friends and the war," he said. "I am like in the middle of nowhere."

There are worse places to be a refugee, where dirt mixes with danger to produce squalor and fear. But there is no masking the desperationof those who have lost all their possessions. The reality is these refugees lingering in the sun remain in a country at war. They are crammed into a safe place in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.

Ulcinj used to be a city of 22,000. But it has more than doubled, with an influx of 23,000 refugees.

When NATO bombs dropped and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic unleashed a campaign to remove non-Serbs from Kosovo, countries such as Albania and Macedonia were swelled by refugees.

But so was Montenegro, a pro-Western oasis with a multiethnic mix of Slavs and Albanians. Many here became concerned that such a vast influx of ethnic Albanians could destabilize the region.

Hostilities haven't come to the surface. But patience with refugees could be wearing thin.

"I don't exactly feel safe here," Jakupi said. "We're still in Yugoslavia."

But at least Jakupi and the other refugees are alive.

Jakupi's last moments in Pec were filled with harrowing images. A former security guard for the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, he said he felt like a target when NATO went to war. He counted as 36 bullets riddled his family's house in the hours before NATO started bombing on March 24.

"The army told us, `When NATO attacks, we'll kill you all,' " he said.

What happened to them later was an experience repeated over and over again by Kosovar Albanian refugees fleeing to this country and others -- Albania, Macedonia and Turkey.

Jakupi and his 16-year-old brother, Blerom, were rounded up and sent with thousands of others to the soccer stadium, while his parents were herded elsewhere. In the chaos, he and his brother escaped, walking 15 hours through the mountains to safety.

The brothers wonder what has happened to their parents, who may have been sent to Albania.

"Albania is no place for a refugee," Jakupi said. "But I will go there to find my parents. When I find them, I'll make a new plan."

Many seem to be settling into Ulcinj for a very long time. The streets are filled with cars with Pec license plates, which may be the final remnants of the city. Families cram into apartments owned by families and friends. Others stay in hotels, promising to pay bills when money arrives from relatives living in Germany.

For those with no money and no friends, a last refuge can be found at one of three mosques.

At the Pasiaus Mosque, more than 100 people, including 40 children, spend each night. There are only two taps and one toilet for this extended family of the dispossessed. Washed clothes are placed on the roof to dry. A bag of beans sits next to a shoe rack. A woman runs a vacuum along the rugs that fill the 20-by-30-foot mosque.

"It is a small place, and we are so many," said Sanije Muja, a 38-year-old mother of three from Mitrovica. Hugging her aged mother, Muja sits in the mosque to shield herself from the midday sun.

"We don't have money," she said. "We have nowhere to go. I want to go back to Kosovo but I don't have a house anymore."

Up the street is an enclave of sorts, a neighborhood of beautifully kept homes that surround the Serbian Orthodox Church, a 109-year-old gem built in the shadow of a 5th-century city wall and overlooking an azure sea.

Yesterday, the smell of lamb cooking on coals filled the air as Radojica Bozovic, a 51-year-old priest, made final preparations for the Orthodox Easter celebration. The Serbs are Orthodox Christians. Most of the Albanians are Muslims. Their ancestors converted to Islam when this was part of the Ottoman Empire.

"There are no problems with these refugees," he said, sitting at a dining room table and offering guests homemade liquor. "There are no incidents. We have respect for the refugees. We know they have suffered."

But he admitted that "there is a kind of tension, not a healthy atmosphere."

"Both Muslims and Orthodox people look at them as a burden," he said. "They're feeding them, providing housing. But the majority are fine with them."

Still, these are unusual times for Bozovic. The bearded priest fears that the violence that is flaring in Serbia could come here because "what you see in the neighbor's yard, could happen to you."

For Bozovic, the days leading to this Orthodox Easter have been unlike any other.

"I'm much sadder," he said. "Bombs have been dropping on my friends, my brothers, my churches."

But today, the priest will celebrate Easter with a service in his church by the sea. He said he will be praying for peace.

"This is a wonderful place," he said. "I love this place. It is beautiful."

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