Fugitives flee days of ordeal in Prizren

Refugees arriving in Albania describe time of fear and flight

War In Yugoslavia

May 02, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUKES, Albania -- Life for the ethnic Albanians of Prizren, Kosovo, took a terrifying turn for the worse at the end of last week, when Serbian forces began driving them out in earnest and sent them fleeing by the thousands into Albania.

Arriving in Albania, the refugees spoke of half the people of Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city, having fled, many with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Refugees who have arrived here over the past few days from Prizren described a city where for the past month the food shops sold only to ethnic Serbs, fear of police had kept all but elderly Kosovar Albanians indoors, and "ethnic cleansing" had reduced the population by half.

There were exceptions.

When old men and women lined up for bread at the two bakeries still operating, Serbs and Albanians mixed freely. Serbs living in apartment houses shared coffee and rumors with their Albanian neighbors, and vice versa. The city came under NATO bombardment every night, but except for a few misses all the targets were military, and the center of Prizren was unscathed.

But it was getting uglier.

"I decided to get out because I was thinking that things were going to be worse," said one man who asked that he not be identified for fear of reprisals against his mother and brother, who he believed were still in Prizren.

This man had worked for a Western relief agency in Prizren before its offices there were shut down March 19. He lived in fear and increasing anxiety for the next 40 days, until Thursday, when he drove the 12 miles to the Albanian border and in a half-hour left his entire life behind.

His account of conditions inside Kosovo, much of it corroborated by others, begins March 23, just before the NATO attack began.

His is a story without physical trauma, unlike those of so many of the refugees once more flowing into Albania. But perhaps for that reason, the tale he calmly tells of life in a city terrorized by its own police is all the more striking.

Knowing that he was marked because of his job with a Western organization, he moved with his wife and 2-year-old daughter into the three-room apartment of his wife's parents and sister.

No one there thought NATO would actually begin the bombardment; the American diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke was in Belgrade, and it seemed that President Slobodan Milosevic would take Yugoslavia to the brink and back down at the last moment.

But on March 25 the missiles struck.

That night, he said, Serbs smashed the windows of all the Albanian-owned shops in the city, a virtual replay of the Kristallnacht attacks on Jewish shops in Nazi Germany.

The police ordered the shops to reopen, but none of the owners dared to do so. Today the windows are covered with plastic sheeting or boarded up.

At first, he said, people stayed huddled in their homes, but after a few days they began to venture out in the daytime, buying out the remaining supplies in the privately owned food shops.

That stopped when police began picking up young Kosovars on the street and taking them away.

Again, after a few days, people began to venture out, and again the police began seizing all but the elderly. From then on, he said, only old men and women dared to go outside.

For the rest, their only view of the world outside their homes came through the lacy curtains that hung everywhere, that no one would be so foolish as to pull back.

In the beginning, the electricity was cut off at 6 every evening to impose a blackout, but in modern warfare a blackout doesn't protect against much, so eventually the power came back on around the clock. A majority of homes in Prizren had satellite dishes, so news came from Albanian television and the BBC, as well as Radio Free Europe.

The water flowed normally, newspapers stopped publishing, the phones went dead.

Families subsisted on canned goods and pasta they had set aside, and the bread that was still available. Government-run food shops were open, but only to those customers whose identity papers showed them to be ethnic Serbs.

A black market inevitably sprang up, and a pack of American cigarettes cost about $6.

This man's father-in-law owns an Opel, which he had filled with gas when it was still available. About two weeks ago, the family decided to leave; six people and as many suitcases as they could carry crammed into the car. But in a village just outside Prizren, police stopped them.

"Why are you running away?" the Serb asked them. "Go home. There won't be any trouble."

He didn't leave them any choice.

That was the last time until Thursday that any of the younger members of the family left the house. For nearly two weeks they stayed indoors with nothing to do but worry -- about their dwindling supplies of food, about the fate of their relatives, about what the Serbs might do.

"It was terrible," the man said, "looking through the window every five minutes, worrying that someone was coming for you."

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