Kosovo's refugees met with guns in Macedonia

Forces at border called as menacing as the Serbs

War In Yugoslavia

April 20, 1999|By COX NEWS SERVICE

TANUSHEVCI, Macedonia -- In the frigid highlands on the Yugoslavia-Macedonia border, they appeared first as tiny specks in the distance, almost invisible against a backdrop of high mountains on one side and the rising smoke of fires in the villages of Kosovo far away in the valley below.

Slowly, they emerged yesterday from this surreal panorama, soon identifiable as a line of weary refugees. The group of nine came on foot -- adults, children and a baby being carried by his mother on horseback.

Ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, the Hajdari family found freedom. But it was a rude welcoming.

Fleeing the terrifying squads of Serbian fighters who on Thursday emptied their village of Lubishte in Kosovo, they ran headlong into a country, Macedonia, that doesn't want them either.

The Hajdari family arrived Friday morning in these remote, mile-high mountains, among 130 refugees from their village. They soon found themselves being forced at gunpoint back toward Kosovo by Macedonian troops.

"They said, `We'll send you back to the Serbs. Better that they shoot you than we shoot you,' " recalled Rakip Hajdari, 49, a farmer who fled with his family.

The surge of refugees from Kosovo into Macedonia and Albania came to an abrupt and alarming halt Sunday night. Yugoslavia sealed its southern borders early yesterday. Macedonia, fearful that the ethnic Albanians will upset its social and economic balance, has been an unwilling host since wave after wave of refugees over the past four weeks has swelled their number here to more than 130,000.

With the official border crossings closed, small groups of international journalists set out yesterday to remote border areas on a hunch that refugees would be seeking a route on the footpaths, not the main roads.

We found what we had come to see -- a group of haggard people on the move through rough terrain, fleeing the Serbs with heroic will and desperate ingenuity.

What we did not expect were tales from the refugees that the Macedonian forces were as menacing as the Serbs.

Macedonia maintains an official policy as a reluctant host. At the border, its reputation is far worse.

The Hajdari family said they and hundreds of others thought that they had found a haven in the remote Macedonian border village of Malina Maala, only to be beaten and harassed by Macedonian troops.

About 1,500 refugees who streamed into Malina Maala during the weekend were taken in by local ethnic Albanian families and allowed to stay. They will be relocated to refugee camps today.

But the Hajdari family and scores more were forced out of the village, they said, by Macedonian police swinging gun butts and rubber truncheons.

"These guys are just Serbs in a different uniform," said an observer for the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

This border area is remote, without the prying eyes of the United Nations or NATO or other international groups in Macedonia to look out for the welfare of the refugees.

Ostensibly, the Macedonian government contends that its new policy is to keep the frontier off-limits to outsiders and thus prevent the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army from conducting guerrilla operations from Macedonian territory.

Others fear it is to prevent the world from learning of the brutality that may have taken place in these mountains in recent days.

OSCE officials were denied entry to the area by Macedonia border guards Sunday and yesterday.

Police stopped our car, checked our press credentials and briefly confiscated the camera of a photojournalist in our small group. They said we lacked authority to be in the border area and turned us back.

That's when we caught sight of the Hajdari family as they ended their three-hour trek up a steep ravine from the small Macedonian village that had been harboring them. By arrangement, a dilapidated van was waiting to take them to a host family in Skopje, Macedonia's capital, only 20 miles to the southeast, but a two-hour drive.

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