Relief groups turn attention to elderly

Some appear to lose will to live, workers say

War In Yugoslavia

May 03, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

TIRANA, Albania -- One month after the start of the Kosovo refugee crisis, officials of relief organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross are beginning to focus on the special needs of the elderly refugees, especially the hundreds of the most vulnerable among them -- those who lost contact with their families in the rush to get out of Kosovo.

For many such people, according to Red Cross spokeswoman Dalani Carlisle, family reunification is a matter of life or death.

"What we are finding as we go deeper and deeper in the community is that this one group is particularly vulnerable," Carlisle said.

She described old people who have lost their land and their familiar surroundings and suddenly find themselves alone. Confronted with the seemingly impossible challenge of starting over at their age, some of these people seem instead to be willing themselves to die, she said.

"These elderly are basically turning their faces to the wall. We have found people who have not eaten or drunk anything for days. They say, `We have nothing left to live for.' "

The 600,000 refugees who have emerged from Kosovo are overwhelmingly women and children. The elderly, men and women, represent a minority -- only a few percent in the opinion of aid workers. In the rush to expel the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo, no one knows how many old people may have been killed or abandoned or who died before they could reach safety.

"We know from the stories told by the refugees that they have walked for four to seven days to get here," Carlisle said. "Our suspicion is that those who were not strong enough were left on the wayside."

There are signs that at least some of the Serbian forces went out of their way to terrorize old people. Men in their 60s and 70s were beaten, and in some cases killed. Other old people were threatened with death.

The Red Cross has identified about 80 elderly people completely alone and is looking for their relatives. Carlisle believes that the number does not reflect the reality of the problem, which she thinks is much larger.

Older people "always have special problems. They are more vulnerable, more subject to exhaustion and chronic diseases," said Ariane Quentier, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Like all refugees, elderly people have only limited access to basic medical supplies and clinics, and there are no special programs or organizations operating to help the elderly cope. Medicines needed by old people to regulate their blood pressure or prevent depression are also in short supply, adding to their physical and mental suffering, doctors say.

After having walked for so many days, Quentier said, the old among the refugees often are simply worn out.

Elderly refugees who have reached Albania say that they are having a more difficult time than their children in coping emotionally with the new circumstances.

"My mind is not here," confessed Kadri Bytuci, 67, from the village of Opterrush. "Even if somebody calls me, I might not answer."

The only thing that he can imagine to calm his nerves, Bytuci said, would be to be allowed to go home. "Once I am back there," he said, "it will be like I am reborn."

For Ahmet Morina, being ordered off a wagonload of refugees, because he didn't have enough money to pay his tormentors, was the most frightening experience.

"I was thinking they were going to shoot me, since I had seen many people killed," he recounted. When the police ordered the wagon to drive on, he said, "I was really alone. I was crying."

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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