In Kukes, welcome runs thin

Albanian resentment over refugees rising

April 26, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUKES, Albania -- The warm welcome that met Kosovar Albanian refugees as they streamed through here by the hundreds of thousands over the past month is finally starting to wear out in this mountain town, giving way to exhaustion, resentment and grief.

A Kosovar Albanian farmer, Sadat Pirkuqi, and the 17 members of his family are moving out of the home where they had been staying and into a camp, because their host, Anton Zela, says, "We just can't afford to keep all these people."

Shemsi Demiri, a physics teacher from the Kosovo town of Mirovica, hasn't even begun to think of schooling in Kukes for his three children, because town officials keep moving them from camp to camp.

Afrim and Bedrije Rama have been unable to get medical help for their 6-year-old son, who was abruptly discharged March 25 from a Belgrade hospital with a tumor on his buttocks, because the international relief agencies have been too hard pressed to attend to him.

Yesterday, as their son, Mergim, was running a fever, they were told they would have to move to another camp -- the fourth move in a week.

They didn't know it, but they were victims of a feud between local farmers who were vying for rental fees on the mountain slope where 400 refugees are staying. The farmers had blocked the access road out of spite and threatened to start shooting at the refugees unless the camp was closed.

Across Albania, 350,000 Kosovar refugees have been taken in, most staying at private homes. It has been an unparalleled outpouring of generosity, and the flow of refugees continues. The welcome mat has not been pulled back -- but it is starting to fray.

Here in Kukes, a remote mountain town of 20,000 where most of the refugees have come in, price gouging and mutual dismay are starting to take hold. Depending on the course of events in Yugoslavia, relief agencies are hoping to move most of those still here to camps in central and southern Albania within the next few weeks. Many don't want to move so far from Kosovo, but Kukes cannot support 40,000 refugees for very much longer.

Refugees complain about the mud, the food, the lack of soap and the boredom. Residents complain about the burden this crisis has put on all of them. But the disaster picks out a few victims for special treatment -- people like the Ramas, a family ripped apart by illness and war. Afrim and Bedrije are anxious not only for Mergim but for their two daughters in Macedonia as well, and for their 12-year-old son, Leotrim, who as far as they know is still somewhere in Kosovo.

Mergim's tumor appeared 10 months ago and he and his parents began making regular trips from their home in Pristina to a hospital in Belgrade for treatment. When they left home the last time, on March 16, leaving their other children with relatives, they had no idea this visit would be any different.

The doctors in Belgrade never told the Ramas much about their son's illness -- they don't know if the tumor is cancerous. Their responsibility was to bring him up for regular treatments and make sure he took his medicine at home. That was enough.

But on March 25, the day after NATO began its attack on Yugoslavia, Mergim was summarily discharged from the hospital, apparently because he is an ethnic Albanian. His father still carries the worn and folded discharge form. It directs his parents to provide Mergim with a daily antibiotic.

That turned out to be a fantasy.

The three left for Pristina by bus, but they only got as far as the Kosovar village of Gniljane. The police wouldn't let them go any farther. Over the next 18 days, they lived in four different places in the village.

They learned that the police had come to their home in Pristina and ordered everyone in their extended family to leave. They knew that their daughters, Drita, 14, and Mimoza, 9, had made it to Tetovo, Macedonia, where they are now living with their grandfather and an uncle. They have heard nothing about Leotrim. They believe he was not at home when the police arrived. They hope he found shelter with an aunt who stayed behind in Kosovo.

Today, they have one other relative in Yugoslavia, Afrim's brother, who joined the Kosovo Liberation Army the day the police came smashing down doors in Pristina.

April 12, Mergim and his parents left Gniljane for a village in the mountains, but six days later they decided they would have to flee Kosovo. They joined a caravan of tractors and came down out of the mountains and into Albania. Saturday, they moved into their third camp in six days in Kukes.

When Mergim developed a fever, they said, they appealed to the Red Cross for treatment, but were told they should see an Italian doctor working at the camp. But in the chaos and indecision that have afflicted the relief effort here, they had to move before they had a chance to do so. Yesterday found them in a brand new camp, on the stony lower slope of Mount Gjallica.

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