[KDN] NYT Despairing of getting home, Kosovars yearn to go abroad
- THE NEW YORK TIMES
June 1, 1999
Despairing of Getting Home, Kosovars Yearn to Go Abroad
By DAVID ROHDE
SKOPJE, Macedonia -- If there is an overwhelming sense that
emerges from a walk through the squalid refugee camps of
Macedonia these days, it is despair.
Whether it is the newly arrived refugees who until last week bravely
eluded Yugoslav efforts to expel them from Kosovo, only finally to
flee in the face of dwindling food and unending fear, or the refugees
who have already endured weeks in the overcrowded camps here,
Kosovars are giving up on their dream of returning home soon and
are increasingly desperate to go abroad.
In recent days, ethnic Albanians arriving from Pristina, Kosovo's
capital, described how they spent the last two months determined to
wait out the conflict and not bow to Yugoslav pressure. After being
expelled from their own homes in early April, they simply moved
from house to house, village to village, for weeks, they said, playing
a nerve-fraying cat-and-mouse game with their pursuers.
But as each week passed, as April dragged into May and now June,
their desperation grew and their determination waned, refugees
said. Sherif Krasniqi, 42, a librarian who fled Pristina with his family
last Monday and now hopes to go abroad, said the daily
disappointments were torturous.
"Nonstop we were listening to the news," he said. "Waiting for a
At the same time, among the roughly 100,000 refugees who have
been waiting in camps here, initial optimism that the conflict would
be over swiftly has faded, along with the desire to avoid resettling
farther from home.
The largest single source of tension in the camps is no longer the at
times heavy-handed tactics of local Macedonian police guarding the
camps, aid workers said. It is bitter disputes over who gets to be
evacuated abroad first. Journalists once besieged with requests
from refugees to borrow cellular phones so they could tell their
relatives they are alive, are now besieged with requests from
refugees for help -- help of any kind -- to go abroad.
Fatigue is even setting in among the 140,000 Kosovo refugees who
are living in the community, with both refugees and the families that
took them in complaining that after two months, they are reaching
the breaking point.
"The family we are staying with doesn't have any more money," said
Hafiza Haziri, 48, a widow who was waiting last week to fly with her
two children to relatives in Madison, Wisc. "They kept us with food
and everything, but now they don't even have food for themselves."
As the conflict drags on, the rising despair and continuing
evacuations abroad are helping President Slobodan Milosevic of
Yugoslavia achieve what is believed to be one of his primary goals.
The "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo, the permanent reduction in the
number of Albanians living in the disputed province, is gradually
being accomplished. Before the conflict, some 90 percent of
Kosovo's population was ethnic Albanian.
Many Kosovars begin their journey vowing it will be a temporary one.
As Mrs. Haziri waited to depart for Wisconsin, along with 400 other
people flying to the United States, she wept miserably, insisting that
all she wanted to do was "go back to Kosovo."
Bekim Berisha, 30, a doctor who is taking his wife and 1-year-old
son to Phoenix to stay with relatives, said: "I don't know how long it
will be. I hope it will be over as soon as possible."
But history is against them. In the Balkan wars of the past 120
years, few who were forced from home ever went back. Most of
those driven from Bosnia during its 1992-95 war have not returned,
some because their homes are still controlled by their wartime
enemies, others because the life they were forced to adopt abroad,
while it may be tough, in the long run seems better for them and,
most important, their children.
The pressures that lead refugees to abandon hope of quickly
returning home are reflected in the tale of Afrim and Lumnije Murat,
two young Pristina lawyers who fled Kosovo recently and are now
struggling to decide what to do.
When they set foot in Macedonia on May 22 after living in hiding for
two months, Afrim and Lumnije's only thought was of their unborn
child. For eight weeks, 28-year-old Lumnije, who is seven months
pregnant, lived a nightmare.
Ordered by her doctor to avoid stress, she lived in constant fear of a
knock on the door from Serbian police. Told to have regular prenatal
checkups, she had none because her doctor fled. And instead of a
carefully planned diet of vitamins and nutrients for her child, she
dined on beans and potatoes, day in and day out, for two months.
"I had one miscarriage before," she said. "I was afraid it would
Murat, a highly articulate, boyish-looking 28, said his father, mother,
brother and two sisters fled to Macedonia during the first wave of
expulsions in late March. But he was determined to stay to protect
the family home, which his father and grandfather had spent 50
years building and expanding. It was by far the family's biggest
investment and asset.
Instead of fleeing the country with his family, he and his wife hitched
a ride on a tractor to a village outside Pristina. For the next two
weeks, they moved from village to village, fleeing Serbian attacks
until they decided to sneak back into Pristina.
For the next six weeks, Ms. Murat did not set foot outside in the
daylight, fearing for her and her unborn child's safety. Murat did the
same, fearing he would be taken away by police because he was of
fighting age. As the conflict dragged on, their food and optimism
"We thought at first when NATO started bombing that after a week
they would accept," he said, referring to the Serbs. "But the situation
got worse and worse."
When police went through their neighborhood door-to-door on May
22, expelling anyone who remained, a long-running fear for their
unborn child finally took over. When the knock on their door came,
they fled to a neighbor's home through a hole in a fence. Hearing
trains were again running to Macedonia, they walked to a train
station south of Pristina, in the town of Kosovo Polje, the next
There, Yugoslav soldiers asked the Albanian men gathered if they
were college graduates, Murat said. After the men identified
themselves, they were led away. Murat did not raise his hand.
After a grueling journey on a packed train that included another night
in a village and hours of waiting to cross at the border, they arrived
in the sprawling Stenkovec I refugee camp outside Skopje two days
later. Aid workers rushed Ms. Murat, who could no longer walk, to a
German field hospital.
''I'm tired but I feel better," she said the following morning. "The baby
is OK." She lay beside two women who had given birth the previous
night. One of the children, a twin, had died.
In a conversation that day, Murat vowed to return to Pristina and
was torn about temporarily leaving the region. If he went, he said, he
would be abandoning Kosovo and furthering Serb aims of emptying
Albanians from Kosovo. "If I know a particular date, one month or
two months," he said, "I would stay here."
Within days, his views began to shift. The thrill of escaping Kosovo
alive was replaced by the numbing routine of camp life.
Their new home was a white, four-person tent they shared with
another couple from Pristina. Skopje already sweltered in late May,
with temperatures inside the tents reaching over 90 degrees.
Their beds consisted of three blankets. Their diet was a variation of
bread, soft cheese, milk and canned meat. And their community
toilet consisted of holes in the ground surrounded by plastic
sheeting. The stench is so powerful some people gag.
With no running water or showers, refugees stand outside their
tents, pour water over their heads and wash their hair to give
themselves some sense of being clean. Some young people have
shaved their heads to avoid contracting lice.
The conditions are uncomfortable but by no measure
life-threatening. Remaining here would kill no one. But the potent
force pulling the refugees abroad is the seemingly slow progress of
NATO's air campaign, the tedium of camp life, and the daily
spectacle of other refugees departing for what seem to be far better
places and lives.
Barred from leaving without permission, the 20,000 refugees in
Stenkovec I are penned into a flat, dusty, 1-mile-long by
half-mile-wide monotonous maze of tents. There is little to do but
check the lists for who is headed abroad, walk in circles and while
away the time strategizing about how to get out.
The situation here is far different from the camps in Albania. There,
the government has tried to strictly limit evacuations abroad, arguing
that they further Milosevic's goals. But the Macedonian government
has aggressively pushed for evacuations.
Ethnic Macedonians fear that if the Kosovo Albanian refugees
permanently resettle here, the ethnic balance in Macedonia could
sharply shift and ethnic Albanians could eventually outnumber
Macedonians. The new plans to begin evacuating some refugees
from camps in Albania are a concession to Macedonian officials
who are trying to find ways to get refugees to move voluntarily from
camps in Macedonia to camps in Albania.
On his second day in Macedonia, Murat's family visited after hearing
through friends that he had arrived. Speaking through a chain-link
fence, his mother urged him to try to go abroad. His wife, who still
feared for the baby's health, was eager to join her parents who were
already in Germany with her brother.
On his fourth day in the camp, Afrim agreed. He explained how his
family needed a person abroad earning money to survive. And he
was less adamant about returning to Kosovo, saying the province
and his own home would likely be destroyed by withdrawing Serbs
or advancing NATO soldiers.
He had resisted all he could in Pristina, he said, and still hopes to
return. But in the end, he cited a reason many refugees did for
leaving -- the same reason many may never return: his child's
future. "Soon, she will give birth," he said. "I have to go."
If chosen for evacuation, the couple could be flown to Germany, and
be building a new life, within a week.
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