From terror to Baltimore

Refugees: A family from Kosovo endured the all-too-well-known horrors before finally being shuffled here.

June 12, 1999|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Their four children sat before a television set Thursday night, transfixed by "Xena: Warrior Princess" as Esat and Lirije Alaj described events they only wished were as fanciful.

Eleven weeks ago, masked gunmen ordered the family out of their house in Pristina and out of their homeland in Kosovo. So began a harsh and harrowing journey, which ultimately deposited them, dazed and anxious, in Baltimore, a city most of them had never even heard of until they arrived here on June 3.

They came just as a peace agreement was being finalized for their country. But, said Esat, a tall and handsome 45-year-old man with graying hair, he knows he and his family won't be returning home anytime soon. If ever. Through a translator, he said he would go back to Kosovo, "Only if everything goes back like it was before." Or, better yet, he added, if Kosovo were to be made a free country.

The Alajes are being sheltered by the Salem Lutheran Church in Catonsville, which has moved them into this comfortable, three-bedroom townhouse in Catonsville. Pastor Edward Whetstone, a gentle, gray-bearded man, said church members are contributing food, clothing and furniture to the family while also arranging for medical care, English-language classes and help in seeking employment.

Coincidentally, on the same day the Alajes came to Baltimore, a second Kosovar family had also arrived, this one helped by Govans Presbyterian Church. Both families had spent several weeks at Fort Dix, N.J., at the reception camp established for Kosovar refugees coming to this country. Both families are also sponsored by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

Apparently, they are the first two Kosovar refugee families to be resettled in Baltimore. Relief agencies say there will likely be more, although not as many as in cities such as Detroit and Brooklyn, which, unlike Baltimore, have sizable Albanian communities.

For the Alajes, their ordeal did not commence with the war in Kosovo. For years, they say, they endured ill treatment at the hands of the Serbs, who wouldn't permit Esat to practice his profession as an engineer or Lirije, 39, to work anymore as a librarian. The family, which includes daughters Edona, 14, Albulena, 12, and Kaltrina, 10, and son Skordian, 8, survived on money Lirije earned through her needlework and on contributions from relatives.

Four days after the NATO bombing started in March, Serbian policemen in black masks burst into their home and ordered them to get out immediately, or they would be shot right there. They were only able to take one suitcase. "Go to NATO!" the Serbs taunted them. "You asked for it."

The family hid in the home of strangers for three days, but without food, they knew they would have to move on. When foreign radio broadcasts revealed that the Serbs were killing Albanians, Esat and Lirije realized they had to get out of the country altogether. They joined the swollen line of refugees making their way for the Macedonia border, about 70 kilometers away. Frequently, they heard gunshots from either side, and occasionally they saw wounded Albanians. The Serbs demanded whatever money they had. Esat handed over 20 German marks, all that he had.

They made it to the Macedonia border the first day, but found their way there blocked. That first night, Esat crowded his family into an abandoned car. He stayed outside in the rain. They went without food for three days. Each dawn, they learned of people who had died overnight. There was no place to rest but in the mud. Sometimes Esat and Lirije stood to block the rain, while their children slept at their feet.

"I didn't think we were going to make it," Esat said. At one point, he saw three men try to break out of the camp and watched as Serbs shot them. Early one morning, a bomb burst not more than 300 meters away.

Finally, they were allowed into Macedonia and bused to a refugee camp. There they were given a tent and food. Each day, more and more refugees arrived and the camp became ever more crowded. Eventually, Esat said, "People were sleeping on top of each other."

They were in the camp for six weeks. At one point, they were offered the choice of three countries to go to for refuge, Germany, Norway and Sweden. They chose Germany because Lirije has a brother there.

But when the list of destinations came out, they saw they were being sent to the United States, which at first upset them. "It was so far from our family," said Lirije. None of them had ever been outside Kosovo.

They arrived at Fort Dix May 14 and lived there comfortably. Albulena, the most outgoing of the children, picked up a lot of English. She'll probably be fluent by the end of the summer.

At Fort Dix, they learned that all of their family had gotten safely out of Kosovo. They hope some will be able to join them in the United States.

On June 3, they boarded a van, believing they were being resettled in Virginia. Instead, they were brought here, where the Salem Lutheran Church immediately enveloped them. "We knew it was a good country, but we didn't know it was this great," said Esat, who confided to a new friend here, "This is the first time I've been happy in 45 years."

As for the future, he simply didn't know. He mentioned the possibility of his going back without the children at first. He doesn't want to force them back while they're still frightened. "I want them to choose."

But decisions, Esat said, are a long way off.

Pub Date: 6/12/99

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