Features

Long flight to safety

International | Border-crossing isn't easy, as Kosovar Albanians risk drowning in a sea of humanity as they flee the flame

Issue: "God, Caesar and taxes," April 17, 1999

Refugees are taking leave of Kosovo as "out of a fired ship," in the line from John Donne, "which, by no way but drowning, could be rescued from the flame."

Relief workers say 20,000-25,000 Kosovar Albanians each day have been leaving their homes for neighboring countries since the NATO bombing began. On Easter Sunday alone, 44,000 Kosovars reportedly put their homeland behind them, as Serb forces pressed an elusive campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Bottlenecks at Kosovar border areas with Macedonia and Albania prompted police to close some transit points. Supplies were bottlenecked, too, with infrastructure in southern Europe strained to capacity, and NATO imposing no-fly zones-closing the airport in the Albanian capital, Tirana, for example-as a further obstacle. In some areas, refugees are being moved seemingly arbitrarily by local governments, while aid workers struggle to cope with the human tide. For most refugees, escape from Kosovo is proving to be only the beginning of the journey.

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"It is frightening," said UN refugee commissioner Sadako Ogata, "that this century, as in its darkest hours, should end with the mass deportation of innocent people."

In Kukë, a transition area for refugees near the Albanian border with Kosovo, roads are breaking apart due to the volume of traffic. Food supplies from the United Nations no longer could be trucked in last week due to the deterioration. The UN's World Food Program began using helicopters to dump MREs instead, skirting no-fly zones and NATO assaults.

Refugees in this region are being moved to the south toward Tirana, according to Sean Robinson, Albania director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which is overseeing resettlement efforts in that area.

In Tirana, refugee flows are being directed toward sports stadiums and other high-capacity facilities. Relief workers and refugees drift into a routine, of sorts, with the frequent roar and sonic bursts of NATO jet fighters overhead, winging their way toward Yugoslavia.

Resettlement officers take down information about family members separated from one another, promising to try to locate lost loved ones. "Family unity" remains one of the top goals of the resettlement efforts. It becomes more difficult as refugees are bused from border areas to scattered sites.

At a stadium run by Albanian Evangelical Alliance churches, Ymerli Perevizaj arrived last week with 17 members of his family-his wife and eight children, an elderly father, and a cousin with his family. Mr. Perevizaj tried to protect his home in Kosovo, sending the rest of his family on ahead of him. But Serb police forced him out, threatening to kill him and cut him in pieces. He fled as the Serbs burned the house to the ground. He and his family walked 15 miles before they were picked up by locals with a tractor and hauled to the border. One son became ill along the way and was hospitalized in Tirana.

Mr. Perevizaj told relief worker Galen Carey he was bewildered by what had happened. His family once owned a bakery in Belgrade, and he says that he got along well with his Serb neighbors. "They would never have done this by choice," he said. He also said he is worried about government plans to send his family to a remote rural area, where he is afraid that his daughters may be kidnapped by the local mafia and sent to Italy as prostitutes. He lost contact with relatives in Brooklyn when his address book was burned along with his home.

Mr. Carey, a relief coordinator with World Relief who also resettled refugees for the UN in Croatia, said Albania's tiny evangelical minority was responding "heroically" to the flood of refugees. "Many are housing refugees in their homes, while others are preparing and distributing food at two hastily created refugee camps," he reported. The indoor sports stadium has over 1,000 cots and blankets and is staffed with church volunteers working in shifts, easing the sick and handing out thick bread with feta cheese.

Farther away, Turkey and Norway began taking in thousands of Kosovo Albanians, who were flown from Macedonia to those countries for temporary shelter. European countries have promised to take in up to 100,000 refugees, and the United States pledged to take in 20,000. They were set to begin arriving at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay last weekend.

Providing safe haven, however, brings strategic risks. Once removed from the immediate region, will Kosovars ever want or be able to return to their homeland? And, absent the Kosovar Albanians, what are the NATO jets fighting for?

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