Albanian hospitality exhausted

many refugees must pay dearly

Some hosts are forced to turn out Kosovars whom they can't feed

May 22, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

TIRANA, Albania -- In two small, dank rooms without cooking facilities or running water, Musa Qoqaj and 44 relatives sleep cheek-to-shoulder each night on a cold concrete floor with only dreams and memories to distract them from their plight.

For their place of refuge, the once-prosperous baker and his extended family pay more than $250 a month -- a princely sum in impoverished Albania and an example of the exhausted generosity of a nation that has become host to more than 400,000 refugees from a richer land.

Nothing left to give

Albania has been hailed by Western countries for sheltering the majority of those expelled from besieged Kosovo, but that praise is proving too little to stoke the sympathies of Albanians who have nothing left to give. Increasingly, those with space to offer are demanding payment.

More than half the refugees waiting in Albania for peace to return to their homeland are living in private homes as opposed to the teeming refugee camps, but the network of food, clothing and medical aid has failed to stretch to those staying with host families.

The army of international aid agencies working in Albania has plans afoot to help the private hosts and thus encourage them to keep the Kosovars in their homes, but the care packages and monthly payments of about $10 per guest have yet to become a reality.

Some of the hosts have had to turn out their Kosovars because they simply couldn't afford to keep them longer.

"I have done as much as I can, but I don't have enough money to buy food for so many extra people," Mimosa Shehu, an unemployed mother of two, said of the 12 women and children she brought to downtown Tirana's Piscina refugee camp last week after five weeks at her three-room apartment.

Friends who must part

As she held hands with 28-year-old Hamida Kulici, one of her former house guests, it was apparent that the women were parting under economic duress while remaining close friends.

The atmosphere is less sanguine in some crowded households, where Kosovo refugees grudgingly pay for their squalid urban shelters for fear of being forced to move to more remote camps or survive in the open.

The Qoqaj family, which spent a month living in an unused billiard parlor in the border town of Kukes before arriving in Tirana two weeks ago, has been offered a tent at a camp run by the Greek Orthodox Church just northeast of Tirana, but members fear that the soaring temperatures of summer will be even more a danger to the family's health than the current overcrowding.

"I have a weak heart and couldn't bear the heat," said the family matriarch, Revija Qoqaj, 66. "We are better off here, as long as our landlord doesn't raise the rent."

Family now penniless

Like most arriving from Kosovo, the Qoqajs were robbed of their cash and valuables by the Serbian gunmen who forced them out, leaving them penniless in a country overwhelmed by the influx.

With no hope that any of the 11 adults will find a job in Albania, where unemployment afflicts at least a third of the population, the Qoqajs depend on occasional handouts wired to them by Revija's two sons, who work in Germany.

"We had a good life in Kosovo -- much better than anyone here has ever seen," said Nibe Qoqaj, another of Revija's four sons and the former owner of a pizzeria in their hometown of Gjona.

Fading hospitality among the poorer Albanians is coupled with growing resentment among the less-fortunate hosts that the world has rushed to aid the Kosovars while the native population continues to do without.

That atmosphere has engendered widespread theft and corruption that is depriving the Kosovo refugees of much of the aid coming in to help them, especially those living outside internationally sponsored shelters.

Even shoes stolen

"They are stealing everything from us; last night they even took our shoes!" lamented Arbnesha Qekaj, 27.

She and two-dozen family members who have been camped under a plastic awning stretched between their two flatbed trucks in Kukes have had to wire relatives in Switzerland for money with which to pay for the food donated by international aid agencies but confiscated by local authorities and sold to the refugees on the black market.

"Maybe it would have been better to be killed by the Serbs than by our fellow Albanians," muttered Merita Sefaj, a young expectant mother from Prizren, when told by a potential Tirana landlord that it would cost her $300 a month to stay in his one-room apartment.

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