No place like home

International | For many Kosovo refugees, the war's ravages are no match for the longing to go back

Issue: "Panic at PBS?," Aug. 14, 1999

Editor's note: This story contains graphic accounts of violence. Since the Serbian withdrawal, some refugees have returned to Kosovo, while others have debated when to return. WORLD had a rare glimpse at a refugee camp in Fushe Kruja, Albania, a couple weeks after the NATO air campaign ended. in Albania - The bare, white room is 30 feet long and 15 feet wide. From a window on one end, sunlight pours in over the shoulders of men on makeshift wooden benches or standing against concrete-block walls. The fathers of some 25 families from the northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica have gathered here to discuss when and how they will return to their homes. Some of these men have been in the Serb prison camp at Smrekojnica, near Mitrovica. One of them lost 50 pounds there. Kurt Plagenhoef, an Assemblies of God missionary from the United States, runs the refugee camp with his wife, Stephanie. He is chairing the meeting. When NATO announced that the 500 people living in this camp could begin returning to their homes, the men knew there could be no guarantees that all the Serb forces would leave before they returned. Even so, there is enormous anticipation of the prospect. They want to go home. Many of the families won't wait more than a few more days before hazarding the journey-250 miles, depending on how many bombed-out bridges they encounter. A slim man in his 30s with blue eyes set in a handsome, tired face sits with his 7-year-old son on his lap. He has just rejoined his family after fighting with the Kosovo Liberation Army. Like many Kosovar Albanians, he looks as if he could be from anywhere in the United States or Europe. His younger son is outside playing with other children in the refugee camp. His eldest son, 14, expected in Tirana some time ago, is still missing. Another father says, "I don't know where we will sleep. Our home has been burned, but we will go home this week. We don't want to wait anymore." Some families talk of being stopped and robbed by Serb police, paramilitary, and regular army soldiers multiple times on their journey south over mountain roads leading to Albania. It was a journey many made mainly on foot, by mountain roads, through wind, rain, and cold, with nothing more than water and an occasional half loaf of bread given by friendly Serbs. Another man says, "I don't know where anyone in my family is. I am alone." The men discuss the landmine situation, their financial situations, who can secure a car to take them home, and what they may find when they get there. Albanian citizens are charging their Kosovo Albanian cousins 400 U.S. dollars to hire a driver and vehicle for the trip to Mitrovica. Some reportedly have had to pay 100 German marks in Tirana to get corrupt Albanian officials to issue new identity cards needed to replace documents stolen by Serbs. Rick Roberts, a pastor from Charleston, S.C., who has used his sabbatical to work with the refugees in the camp, says, "These are tough people. When they say they will find a way to go home, they will find a way." The meeting ends with Mr. Plagenhoef praying for God's protection and thanking God for those who have survived atrocities that shocked the world. The men, all Muslims, say "Amen" and slowly leave the small room. Bajram, 19, is a barber like his father. After two weeks of military training in Albania, he spent a month fighting Serb forces with the KLA in Kosovo. He left because he was sickened by it. "We were in combat almost every day. Each time four or five of my colleagues died." "One died in his arms," says his uncle, sitting beside him in the white concrete storage room that has been their family's temporary home. As in all homes in the camp, the furnishings are indistinguishable: The same cots, portable stoves, white concrete walls, one window, one door. Like most in these camps, however, Bajram has his own story to tell. "One day we were pulling back from a battle with Serbs. Of about 40 of us, my colleague stayed behind to fight alone. He had just been told that his brother had been beheaded. His whole family had been killed. He found a wounded Serb and a 17-year-old Russian mercenary. They were badly wounded. He started to cut one of their heads off. The other saw and simply died of fear. He cut the second one's head off, wrapped both heads in a raincoat and brought them to us at our camp in the forest." Bajram vomited at the sight. "They put a lighted cigarette in the mouth of one head and said, 'Smoke this.' A soldier we called 'Rocket' shot the heads and said, 'This is your reward.' Then they began to play soccer and one of the heads got stuck on someone's foot." An Albanian Kosovar and an Albanian national who left the Fushe Kruja camp to assess the danger in Mitrovica have returned. The news is not good. Those remaining in Mitrovica and those who have returned early are virtually without food and beginning to starve. The normal rations, the men say, are salt and water and, perhaps, a potato every few days. Thirty percent of the homes have been burned. The men return with photos of the desolation. They have spoken to the mayor of the city and secured a warehouse. The mission in Fushe Kruja will ship food there. In spite of this news, most of the refugees seem undeterred. Many who have the means to go home say they will set off as soon as possible. Ilir, a quiet 19-year-old English translator, says he and four friends spent 10 days in the forest with only water and a little bread during the war. He left his family when his father told him, "Go and save yourself. They will come and say that you are in the KLA and kill you because you are young." In the forest the Serbs shelled their hideout. "Shells landed 20 meters from me," Ilir said. "When they were shelling us we stayed as close as possible at the edge of the forest so that the shells would go over our heads and land deeper in the woods." His proximity to the Serbs allowed him to see what they were up to. "I was about 500 meters away in the hills. I could see Serbs going from house to house stealing everything-cars, everything, then burning the houses, killing animals with machine guns. Everything! Dogs, cows, everything!" he said, shaking his head. Unlike so many here, Ilir can say that his family members are all alive. Also, he seems willing to wait for the wisest moment to return with his family to Kosovo. Three families have packed a large truck with the possessions they had saved and those given them by missionary aid programs. In just 15 minutes, they climb into the back of the vehicle-21 people-and ride into the night. There were tears of good-bye for the American missionaries and others who entered their lives to help. A 12-year-old boy hurried around to snap photographs of those with whom he had lived for several weeks. He had seen his father shot in the head nine times, his uncle's head cut off by machine-gun fire, and his grandfather cut in half by bullets. Now, the adolescent has two younger brothers, a widowed mother, and a widowed grandmother to care for. Slowly the families are leaving. Cars full of loved ones and strangers, roofs packed with most of what they now own, trucks packed with one or two dozen people. The camp is quieter now, and the frail dash of gaiety following NATO's armistice is fading quickly. The refugees know they have been changed forever. These weeks in crammed old warehouses-sustained by food donated by Christians, clothed by Christians, housed, sung to, and hugged by Christians-have left a deep contrast for the refugees between what they endured in their homes at the hands of neighbors and what they received from strangers on foreign soil. The Plagenhoefs have been changed, too. And so they face their own dilemma: to return to their own home or journey on to Kosovo to help their 500 refugees rebuild and be refugees no more.

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