Kosovars fleeced by Albanian hordes

After escaping Serbs, refugees fall victim to new oppressors

May 05, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUKES, Albania -- Milaim Bytyqi's tractor was all he had left to him when he and his family fled from Kosovo, and when it was stolen by thieves in Albania it meant more than just the loss of his last bit of property.

"It was the one thing that saved the family -- all 30 of us," he said, surveying the rubble-strewn plot where he had last seen the tractor that had carried them to safety, beyond the reach of the Serbs in Kosovo.

It was Thursday, just before dawn, when a half-dozen men with Kalashnikov assault rifles hooked a chain to his tractor and dragged it down to the road behind a car, firing shots in the air to warn the family away.

"We came here to find a haven," Bytyqi said. "We didn't expect this from our own brothers."

Albanians have been generous in welcoming about 330,000 Kosovar refugees into their country, but thieves have descended on this border city to steal what local con artists have not already chiseled out of them.

Albania is poor by any standard, and a great deal of material wealth is flowing in -- from the tractors, cars and money the refugees were able to bring with them, to the clothes and food sent here for distribution, to the television cameras, satellite phones and ready cash of the foreigners who have come here to witness and help.

In a country such as this with a long tradition of banditry -- and a more recent history of national pyramid schemes that collapsed with $600 million in people's savings -- the temptation to steal has proved too strong to resist.

"Christmas probably comes to a place like Kukes once in a generation, and this is Christmas," said Ray Wilkinson, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "You see everything from exorbitant rents to outright banditry."

Rampant thievery

Three men grabbed Abide Arife's son at the tractor settlement where they live, outside the organized camps, and demanded 500 German marks, or about $300.

"Look, I have nothing," he replied. "The police in Kosovo already took everything."

The thieves ran when Arife began to scream, but on other nights the family has lost shoes, clothes off a clothesline and two tractor batteries. A tractor tire was slit by bandits after they were unable to make away with the tractor.

The Arife family is already paying about $120 a month to sleep in a farm outbuilding with a concrete floor and plastic sheeting across an open wall -- 22 people in one room. Next to that is another stall with 30 people and next to that one with 17, each renting for $120.

Four men tried to steal the Maxhumi family car one night, only to discover Fahrije Maxhumi, 69, sleeping inside. They tried to drag her out, but she put up so much fuss that her son came and drove them away.

One afternoon, a man grabbed Rexhep Maxhumi's coat, which had about $250 in it. Maxhumi and his brother caught the man and put him in their truck, at which point he threatened to blow them up with a hand grenade. Police took the thief away. They also took the coat and the money.

"I am grateful to Albania for letting us stay here," said Maxhumi. "But it's so dangerous."

Ymredin Tahiri has been able to fend off would-be tractor thieves. "This is all the wealth I have left, and when I go back to Kosovo I will need to sleep in it while I rebuild my house," he said.

But it annoys him to see local aid workers distributing goods to their Albanian friends rather than to Kosovar refugees. When Westerners aren't there to oversee the disbursement, Albanian toughs push their way to the front of distribution lines and help themselves to the donated aid, he said.

`The final indignity'

Wilkinson said pilfering has been a problem, but he doesn't think it's excessive. He said bus drivers taking refugees from the border crossing to Kukes, a half-hour ride, have been shaking down refugees for money, even though the trip is supposed to be free.

"There's a sense of things deteriorating," he said. "It's the final indignity, but I don't think it's epidemic proportions."

At the more organized camps, security has been beefed up after attacks by thieves. In Kukes, three European correspondents were held up at gunpoint.

But Kukes, at least, is in a part of Albania where the police can be said to have some control.

To the north lies the worst bandit country, a mountainous area of clans, feuds and vendettas that has never been tamed.

The centers of this activity are Bajram Curri and its satellite town, Tropoje.

Several television organizations have sent vans with equipment, staff members and bodyguards up to Bajram Curri, only to see the vans stolen at gunpoint while the guards stood around looking defeated. (Days later, the equipment is offered for sale back to the groups.)

A captain in the special forces police said bandits in the region got a tremendous boost when rioters took to the streets after the collapse of the national pyramid schemes in March 1997. The country's arsenals were raided, with most of the guns finding their way to the bandits or the Kosovo Liberation Army.

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