Terror catches up to fleeing family

Five refugees killed when car hits land mine outside Albanian line

Was In Yugoslavia

April 19, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOLINA, Albania -- They escaped a burning village in central Kosovo. They endured a two-day trek to the border. But terror caught up with seven members of the Berisha family -- cold and hungry and crammed into a tiny car -- 20 feet from the safety of Albania.

In the early morning darkness yesterday, their white Opel subcompact drove over a Serb-laid land mine just outside the Albanian line, killing five family members, injuring numerous other refugees in the same convoy -- and highlighting the extreme danger confronting the uprooted ethnic Albanians in flight from Kosovo.

The death toll from the accident was minor compared with the mass killings reported elsewhere in the war-torn province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. But this was a family who had made it out of the battle zone along one of the main escape routes from Serbian aggression. Just ahead of them, in a muddy clearing on the Albanian side, were relief workers with blankets, cold water and food.

"We almost made it to Albania," said Rexhep Berisha, 38, who lost his mother, Nazmia, and other relatives in the explosion and survived only because he had traveled in a wagon instead of the car.

Refugees from Kosovo encounter a host of perils from the time they flee their villages to their arrival in the ever-expanding refugee camps inside Albania and Macedonia. Along the way, there are uniformed thieves, rapists and thugs; the possibility of starvation; and war breaking out all around.

"Once they get here, we can feed them," said Angela Walker, a spokeswoman for the United Nations World Food Program, which is passing out water, soup and high-energy biscuits to new arrivals. "Our concern is that they make it here."

The Berishas, whose journey began Friday in the tiny Kosovo village of Bardhi, almost did.

Chased out of their home by Serbs and told to get out of the country, family members grabbed what they could and piled into their car. Nazmia Berisha, 64, traveled with another son, his wife and the couple's four children.

About 3 a.m. yesterday, the Berishas had reached the Serbian border station. Ahead of them was a line of wagons proceeding in darkness.

To illuminate the roadway for the wagons, according to some of those on the scene, the Berishas pulled their car to the left side of the road. That was their fatal mistake. In veering to the edge of the roadway, the car struck one of the mines that Serbian authorities have been observed laying on the Kosovo side of the border in recent days.

"For a moment, we thought something was falling from the sky," said Rexhep Berisha.

The blast wiped out the carload of Berishas, except for an 11-year-old girl who was hanging tenuously to life yesterday, and her 33-year-old father, who escaped with minor injuries.

The border closed temporarily, but soon the procession of wooden wagons pulled by farm tractors, of crowded cars, horse-drawn carriages and rain-soaked pedestrians, started anew. By day's end, the already crowded refugee camps in the border town of Kukes had nearly 10,000 new ethnic Albanian arrivals from Kosovo, authorities said.

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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