Exhausted survivors bring tales of death and terror to Albania

Refugees leave behind slaughtered relatives, their burned homes

April 29, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUKES, Albania -- Several thousand refugees trudged across the border from Kosovo here yesterday after a lull of nine days, some telling stories of nightmarish weeks during which they moved from village to village, living in basements and burned-out homes, before the Serbs finally expelled them.

Refugees told of men being killed along the roadside, and of their families being forced to shout, "Long live Serbia, long live Slobodan Milosevic."

Traslije Sokolaj, from the town of Meja, said Serbian soldiers came to her home Tuesday and told everyone to leave. Her three sons and a nephew went to get the family tractor.

"They had the tractor ready to go," she said. "And when they were at the garden gate, the Serbs killed them."

She said they told her not to look at her sons -- Filipi, Simoni and Krista -- or they would kill her, too. They took jewelry, money and clothes from her.

"I have 24 relatives, and I don't know what's happened to them," she said. "I don't know what to do. I'm alone here."

Refugees told of seeing 20 to 50 men killed by the Serbs, and representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said they had heard accounts of 100 men or more killed in the past two days. Ray Wilkinson, a UNHCR spokesman, said several refugees spoke of seeing 15 to 20 bodies in a school on the outskirts of Dakovica.

But the Kosovar Albanians who dragged themselves across the border yesterday, exhausted and distraught, gave confused and sometimes contradictory accounts. There was no way to gauge the accuracy, and perhaps unintentional exaggeration, of what they said.

A general picture emerged of an increasingly unbearable life for the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians still inside Kosovo. And now relief officials here must find additional places in homes and camps for the renewed influx of people, which they acknowledge is getting to be a tougher and tougher job.

One group that came across yesterday had been in the convoy that was bombed by NATO planes near Dakovica two weeks ago.

Gjelfedane Tafaj, 18, was riding in a trailer behind a tractor with her parents when the NATO bomb hit, she said. The tractor burst into flames. Of the 40 people who were in the trailer, she said, 34 were killed, including both her parents.

Among the survivors was her cousin, she said, but he leaped into a nearby river to escape the attack and drowned. Her sisters, 15 and 12, were both injured, and were taken by the Serbs to a hospital in Prizren. She and other relatives returned to her house, which the Serbs had set on fire and was by then a burned-out shell, in the village of Nivoka.

A relative, Nuria Tafaj, said that 50 people lived in that house for two weeks, because there was nowhere else for them to go.

On Tuesday, Serbian fighters came and told them to get out. As the Tafajs and their neighbors were being rounded up, Gjelfedane Tafaj said, she saw as many as 50 men being killed in an adjacent field.

"They were doing it to frighten the rest of us," she said.

By the time they left the village, she said, "the animals were eating the men's bodies."

Like many of the refugees who came in yesterday, Tafaj seemed dulled by the terror she had lived through, showing no emotion at all.

"Can you do something for my sisters?" she asked.

Nepe Bajrami, also from the village of Nivoka, said she thought 20 or 30 men were killed, with 10 Serbs doing the killing.

"Some of the men had been brought into a field," she said. "All the relatives were crying. The army took the men and killed them. I saw them do it. They put them on the ground and killed them."

Riza Manmucaj had been on the run since April 9, he said, ever since the Serbs came and evicted the residents of the village of Lugizhd.

He said he saw 15 men killed in front of their families on that day, though from a distance of slightly more than a mile. Others told similar versions of the 15 men, so it is difficult to be sure if this is a true eyewitness account or a commonly held story that has become vivid in the tellers' minds over the past 19 days.

Manmucaj and his family had to leave Lugizhd.

"In that village there are only stones and fire and smoke," he said.

They went into the mountains around Prizren, where they lived until Tuesday, when the Serbs gathered them up and put them on the road to Kukes.

"The Serbs shot at us and told us to leave," he said.

As the refugees crossed the border, they were greeted with juice, water, bananas, apples, blankets and, for those who wanted it, baby food.

It's a way of starting to give people their self-respect back, said Martin Notley of Catholic Relief Services, which takes part in the border reception.

"Hey, you're safe now; we're here," is the message, he said. "That is psychologically essential."

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