Refugees' fears are at war with their desire to go home

`We have been filled up with promises. What we don't have is hope.'

June 08, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- At this point, a piece of paper doesn't mean much to a man like Murat Bushi.

Serbian police trashed his house and then burned it to the ground, sent him into exile, and murdered two of his nephews in front of their wives and children.

At 69, Bushi thought he had seen the worst that life can throw a man's way, until this year, when the Serbs taught him new lessons in what people can do to each other.

It doesn't matter to him now whether Serb military chiefs sign the withdrawal document presented by NATO to get the Serb forces out of Kosovo, for the simple reason that he wouldn't have any faith in it anyway.

The Serbs broke off talks with NATO's Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson early yesterday morning and last night were declaring their intention to resume those talks. All this was typical Serbian gamesmanship to Bushi. As far as he's concerned, only one thing matters, and that's when there are no Serbian forces left in Kosovo.

Bushi wants to go home. He's very clear about that.

"One simple glass of water in my own house means more to me than milk or honey anywhere else," was how he put it during a long afternoon's conversation in a shaded but sweltering courtyard here.

But he's going back only when he's convinced that NATO has full control of Kosovo.

Bushi is just one of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Kosovo, and they all have stories to tell, motives and hopes and fears, but his is a common refrain:

You can't trust the Serbs. You might not be able to trust NATO. You might have to think about being away a long time. Somehow, someday, you'll get home.

Bushi was asked, when will that be?

Seated cross-legged on a carpet spread on the pavement, he threw his head back and began to laugh. Then he started to cry.

"For now, we don't hope," he said, after he had composed himself.

"Even though we hear many things -- Clinton and Blair and Solana and this one and the other one," he said of the president of the United States, the British prime minister and the head of NATO, "just show us [something]. When they put their words into practice, then we'll know when we can return. We have been filled up with promises. What we don't have is hope."

It was in February, a month before the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia began, that Serbian policemen came to Bushi's home in the village of Pustanek, not far from the Macedonian border, near where Serbian forces had been fighting with the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army.

It was a house he had built, with sweat and with money put aside over the years from his job at the cement factory down the road.

The policemen, wearing black masks, ransacked the house, smashing windows and furniture. One of them took Bushi aside, and he realized it was a young Serbian man who had grown up in the village and who knew Bushi and his family and all their neighbors.

"Uncle Murat, I'm sorry I can't help you," the policeman told him in Albanian. "I cannot protect you."

Of course he couldn't, Bushi acknowledged yesterday. "If they had seen him trying to help us, they would have killed him. He was drafted, mobilized, forced to take part. I don't blame him for what happened."

Bushi, in fact, is careful to distinguish between ordinary Serbs and those who have unleashed war on the Kosovar Albanians.

"In a forest, there are always some bad trees," he said. "In Serbia there are people filled with evil. It's because of their leaders. They're like sheep. If one sheep turns left, they all turn left."

Bushi holds no grudge against the young man who couldn't help him. But he still trembles at the pain he felt when he left his home for the last time, crossed the valley where he had always lived and, standing on the crest of the far ridge, watched as the Serbs set his house and all his neighbors' houses on fire.

Bushi and his three brothers and about 20 members of their families made their way to the border, but the Serbian guards wouldn't let them cross. They went to the home of another relative, Orhan Dernjani, in the town of Djeneral Jankovic, where they hid for two weeks.

"Then the Serbs started to fire into our village," said Dernjani, who had been listening to the conversation. "We decided we had to leave."

Bushi and another old man stayed behind. They had passports and eventually were able to leave on a bus for Macedonia.

The rest of the family split up into two groups. Fahri Bushi, Murat's 33-year-old son, led one group into the mountains, where they hiked for 15 hours until they crossed illegally into Macedonia.

The other group headed to the village of Kacanik. It was here that Bushi's nephews, Adem Bushi, 47, and Xhevad Bushi, 45, were surprised by Serbian paramilitaries while they were drinking tea with their families.

The Serbs killed them both, according to the story told by their wives, who are now at a refugee camp in Cegrane, Macedonia.

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