Hope on the Balkans Kosov@ Crisis 1999
Catchment from a crisis
The war in Kosovo is throwing Albanians together. Expelled and bussed and broke, they are herded from place to place--bringing with them all of their terrible tales.
By Fron Nazi in Korce
In towns and villages across the region, the strands of the Albanian disaster are pulled together. Bordering Macedonia and Greece, the small Albanian town of Korce encompasses all of the elements of the recent tragedy. Haxhi Qereti from the Kosovo village of Landareic, recounts how Serb forces killed his son and daughter. A family from Fshatit Lismir talks about returning to Kosovo to fight with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). And Servet Feka, a local businessman, is hosting 55 refugees. Brought together by the war, they have one thing in common--no idea of what the future may bring. Prior to the explosion of anarchy in Albania in spring 1997, Korce's 80,000 inhabitants used to enjoy a daily stroll along the main boulevard, a picnic in the park, and evening concerts by the local high school orchestra. In the past two years, in the aftermath of the collapse of the pyramid schemes, two local gangs, the Shepherds and the Five-Store gang, have been terrorising the community. So at dusk the streets of this once lively town, nestled between mountain peaks near lake Ohrid, became deserted. Then on April 8, at 6 in the morning, 12,000 Kosovo Albanians arrived in Korce via the Kosovo-Macedonian border crossing of Blace. They were some of the "missing" refugees, expelled from Kosovo and then bussed out of Macedonia, too.
According to refugee testimonies, Serb forces surrounded the village of Fhsatit Lismir on April 4. They herded the villagers into the main square and ordered them to throw all their identity papers on to a blanket that was placed on the ground. They were told that anyone who refused would be shot dead. Serb forces then burned the identity papers and torched the houses. The entire village of a few thousand then had to walk to the capital Pristina where, together with 50,000 other Kosovo Albanians, they were put on trains for Macedonia. Since Macedonia refused to open its border with Kosovo, the new arrivals were forced to spend three days without food and water in the no-man's land at the Blace border crossing. "If it weren't for the ethnic Albanians from Macedonia who forced their way into our camps to give us food and water, we would have starved," said the elder of the family from Fhsatit Lismir, who asked not to be named.
On April 7, at 5:30 in the afternoon, Macedonian authorities forcibly packed some 12,000 Kosovo Albanians, mostly women, children and the elderly, onto 50 buses. Officials told them that they are being sent to a camp 7 kilometres away. After a 12-hour ride without food, water or access to toilets, the Kosovo Albanians arrived in Korce. Sitting in the Korce sports complex which is now home to 800 Kosovo Albanians, the youngest of the four men from Fshatit Lismir, a 30-year-old, said: "We had no idea that we had crossed into Albania. The Macedonian bus drivers opened the door and told us to get out. We have been here ever since." Thus, since April 4, the extended family of 125 has been split up: 14 of the old men stayed behind in Kosovo; 35 are in Korce; and the rest are unaccounted for. "As soon as we settle our children and women we will return to fight alongside the KLA," said the elder.
Haxhi Qerti is from the small village of Landareic next to the city of Prizren. Between March 26 and April 1, Qerti hid in the woods. On April 1, he crossed by foot into the northern Albanian border of Kukes. The next day he and about 300 other deportees were transported by bus to Korce. They were among the first Kosovo Albanians to arrive in the town. The local government has converted what was built as a communist student resort into a temporary shelter for 355 people. Sitting in the dormitory room with his wife, two daughters, 9 and 7, and his 5-year-old son, Klishak, he recounted how he had to flee without burying his 10-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter, who had been killed by Serb shelling. "The Serbs were shooting and bombing our village. They refused to allow us to bury our dead. My children's bodies were left unburied," he said. On Friday 26 March at 11:30 in the morning, Qerti's wife was setting the table for lunch. His son had gone outside to fetch some water. Just as they were about to sit down to eat, his son ran into the house screaming: "The Serbs are firing on us." Qerti immediately took his family to his neighbour's house. The Serbs first shelled the village. After the shelling, Serb gunmen wearing Yugoslav army uniforms came into the village and began shooting. They killed Qerti's neighbour, a 45-year-old lawyer, his mother and 16-year-old son. Another neighbour and her 15-year-old daughter were also shot dead, as were two of Qerti's female cousins, aged 33 and 29. "I was carrying my son Klishak as we were running from the Serbs. They were shooting at us," he said. "They hit my son Klishak in the leg and then my other son was hit. At first I thought he was only injured. He yelled "father, father" and died. When I looked up I saw my daughter lying on the ground. I escaped with the rest of the family into the woods." As he spoke he pulled Klishak's trousers down to show the bullet wound.
In the afternoon, a meeting of host families was scheduled at the town hall. About 200 people gathered to pick up their numbers that would indicate when they can pick-up their weekly humanitarian rations. For 16 people for 10 days, the local government provides 10 kg of macaroni, 10 kilos of oil, and 6 toothbrushes. The host family and the Kosovo Albanians must come to the warehouse together to sign for the items. Servet Feka, 49, co-owner of Korce's wine and cognac distillery said: "It's impossible to maintain a family of 16 on those rations." Servet has taken in 55 people. Mostly women and children. He has turned part of his warehouse into accommodation with four bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. These 55 are better off than most not only because of the privacy they have but also because Servet has set aside a food budget of $100 per day for his guests. "I have a business and it's a bit easier. But most people have to survive on a $200 per month salary," he says. Servet and some of the other locals have created the Korce for Kosova Foundation to assist the 12,000 Kosovars. "How can anyone of us complain when you learn what these people have been through?"
Fron Nazi is a senior editor with IWPR in Tirana.
© Institute of War &Peace Reporting
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