From Kosovo to Macedonia and back: A refugee returns to brother and home

After months of terror, ethnic Albanian finds house a mess, family alive

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 15, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

POZARANJE, Yugoslavia -- As U.S. Marines rolled slowly down the main street yesterday, ecstatic crowds cheered, clapped, threw roses. Finally, even the stone-faced Marines began to melt, waving back, catching flowers, reaching down for an offered bottle of cognac.

For one man in the crowd, it was especially sweet. He was Avdurahim Salahu, and he had just crossed the border from Macedonia. He was a refugee, going home, and this, after all, was the reason the Marines had come.

But Salahu was impatient to get going, so when the American convoy had finally passed, the coils of barbed wire on one armored vehicle flecked with petals, he headed the opposite way. He wanted to see what was left of his home and he wanted to find his brother.

The fields were glowing in the brilliant sunshine, rolling toward hills in the distance. Little villages of tile-roofed houses could be seen all around. At a distance they looked snug and quaint. Up close, in nearly every village, all was destruction and ruin.

Salahu, 37, had been a farmer and teacher in the village of Tankosiq, working at one of the schools set up by Kosovar Albanians who, for a decade, boycotted anything associated with the Serbs. He had lived in an extended family compound. Two months ago, carrying his 2-day-old son, he had fled -- driven out, with everyone else, by Serbian police.

At first, Salahu and his wife had taken their baby and two older children to a house in the nearby village of Slatina. Salahu's elder brother Bejtula moved with his family to another house there.

From Slatina, Avdurahim Salahu could see police burning the homes in his village and NATO bombs exploding night after night in a third village close by. The NATO bombs encouraged them.

"We were pleased," he recalled yesterday, because NATO's bombs would soon set them free.

He could see, as well, that the police had moved into his family compound and made it a sort of base.

Last month, the police came to Slatina, rounded up 19 members of his family and told them to leave. By car and tractor they made their way to Macedonia. But Bejtula and his family, staying in a house on the outskirts of the village, went undiscovered. So they remained.

For a month, there was no contact. Avdurahim had no idea whether his brother was alive. But if there were problems with the houses, he kept saying yesterday, he would talk to Bejtula when he found him, and Bejtula would know what to do.

Yesterday morning, without telling his wife, Avdurahim decided to go back to Kosovo. He had heard that others were doing it. He figured it was worth a try.

With an uncle, Salahu drove to the border. A Macedonian guard demanded that he hand in his United Nations refugee card, telling him: "You can't come back. You will stay in Kosovo."

Salahu replied, "That's fine."

Now, as the car was approaching Tankosiq, he caught sight of one of the houses in the family settlement, one his uncle had built. Black soot fanned upward from every gaping window in the white-stucco walls.

"That house," Salahu said, his voice catching. "There. It's my uncle's house. [The Serbs] stayed there two months and then they burned it."

At the end of the lane he met three neighbors. Their greeting was unemotional. They told him the lane was not mined. Tentatively, he began to walk toward his house.

The big wooden barn doors leading into the compound were smashed, as if with an ax or a sledgehammer. He looked at one door closely, peered through a hole, stood up straight again, and put his hand on it. Then he pushed it over.

There was no booby trap, no explosion. He stepped gingerly around the door. Chickens pecked in the yard. Trash was strewn here and there. From the outside, the three unburned houses looked to be in fairly good shape.

An old blue van that wasn't his poked out of a shed. His farm machinery was gone. Soggy clothes lay in a heap on the ground, apparently looted from another house. Ripped, empty suitcases lay alongside.

"Mother, what have they done?" he said.

He looked at the houses, but, worried about bombs, didn't dare go inside. He glanced at the well, and said: "I'm sorry I can't give you any water. I fear to drink the water. I don't know."

He had buried the village documents, but he couldn't tell whether they had been unearthed. Time for that later. All in all, he decided, the damage wasn't as bad as it could have been.

At the end of the long shed, doors and palings had been placed across the open side, and tread marks behind them led him to believe that the Serbs had hidden a tank there.

Unsure what to do about the houses, he set out to look for Bejtula. He drove over to Slatina, down curvy lanes to the outskirts of the village. He passed children he had taught in the school, waved but kept going. At a gray gate he stopped and walked in. A cow and her heifer stood behind it.

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