Refugees wary of quick return to burned-out villages

Skeptical Kosovars choose safety over home

War In Yugoslavia

June 11, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PETROVEC, Macedonia -- When Ferat Jafa woke up yesterday morning at a refugee camp here, the plan was that he and seven members of his family would fly to Denmark on a humanitarian airlift. Then, picking up a newspaper that circulates in the camps, he learned that the Kosovo peace deal had been struck the night before.

Suddenly, he had the beginnings of a choice: Denmark, or, in maybe just a matter of days, home, in the Kosovo village of Vuciterna.

It wasn't a close call. "Well, I wish I could change my mind, but this is the way to go," he said, as he waited at the airport here for the flight to Copenhagen.

Even if he believed that peace was a reality, Jafa would have felt the strong pull of Denmark, where two of his brothers live and his family would be safe. But in fact, in a reaction typical of Kosovar Albanians, he can't bring himself to believe that any deal struck with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is worth anything.

"I'm very suspicious," he said. "I don't believe they'll reach a real agreement."

As he spoke, American Apache helicopters that had flown in from Albania to take part in the NATO operation were buzzing overhead. A planeload of just-arrived Italian soldiers trooped by, on their way to duty in Kosovo.

"I'd like to go back," said Jafa, a 27-year-old carpenter. "I want to see my parents, my uncles, my neighbors, my workshop. But we don't have any homes. We don't have anything."

Jafa left his house March 21, when Serbian forces began burning the villages near his. He learned later that his village was soon after burned to the ground. He and his family went to Pristina, were driven out, spent two days in the woods, then three weeks in a small village called Mramor.

When the Serbs burned the houses there, they returned to Pristina, tried twice to leave, and, finally, on the third try, made it by bus to the border, arriving at a camp in Skopje on May 27.

It's a story much like those told by thousands of refugees. Homes and ways of life were wiped out. And, with the prevailing skepticism over the peace agreement, there appeared to be a growing reluctance to try to go back too soon to a devastated Kosovo where Serbian paramilitaries might be still on the prowl.

"Until NATO forces clear it all out, we won't believe it," Jafa said.

Yesterday's flight to Denmark was arranged by the International Organization for Migration, which has seen no decline of interest among refugees in going abroad, despite the peace deal, according to Michael Barton, a liaison officer.

"In fact," he said, "people are more eager than ever."

He believes the onset of peace in Kosovo has concentrated refugees' minds about what they really want to do in the near future, and those who were thinking about trying for a place in another European country or America may be deciding that they had better act soon, before it's too late.

As of yesterday, he said, 79,000 refugees have been airlifted out of Macedonia, and plans to reach an eventual total of 135,000 have not changed.

On average, a little more than 1,000 people leave every day.

When Bedri Zeneli, a sociologist from Kacanik, went to board the bus for the Denmark flight, he said, "Some of the guys said, `OK, we should stay,' but they didn't mean it, really."

Zeneli had mixed feelings about leaving, but he is sure that Milosevic will try to play games with the peace deal in a way that will keep the conflict simmering for two or three more months, at least. And, since Zeneli's wife is six months pregnant, he thought it a good idea to get out of the camp and into Copenhagen.

The thought of going back and living among Serbs chills him.

"Some of the Serbs we lived with since we were children did terrible things," he said. "They became evil people after all these years."

But even those who did nothing against the Kosovar Albanians upset him. A next-door neighbor, a 52-year-old divorcee, tried to be kind to him and his family while they were still in Kacanik, he said. Now, it would be "pretty difficult" to move back if she were still there.

"I don't know what she's been doing," he said. "I heard she's been making coffee for the police. She is not an evil person. But if I had the chance, I'd put all the Serbs in a zoo."

That's not good news for Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, commander of the so-called KFOR contingent of NATO troops that will be stationed in Kosovo. He said last night that he intends to establish a basic level of law and order and provide security to all residents, Serbian and Albanian. There could be many on both sides intent on revenge.

But that would require residents to begin with, and as of yesterday there weren't any Kosovar Albanians trying to knock down the gates to get back in.

"I didn't hesitate to get on the bus," said Zeneli. "Yes, my homeland is my homeland. And I hope in time they will return us to our homes. But because we are human it is better to escape from trauma for a while. And, yet, wouldn't it be tragic if Kosovo were free -- but without people?"

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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