World

‘THERE WERE BODIES EVERYWHERE’

Tales of terror emerge as refugees overwhelm Albania

April 12 1999
World

‘THERE WERE BODIES EVERYWHERE’

Tales of terror emerge as refugees overwhelm Albania

April 12 1999

‘THERE WERE BODIES EVERYWHERE’

World

COVER

Tales of terror emerge as refugees overwhelm Albania

Albania’s only major road running from its northern border with Kosovo to the capital, Tirana, is a crumbling, pitted two-lane track that winds around scruffy mountainsides and through small towns hazy with brick dust. Rusted, cannibalized car frames—Albania’s road kill—line the route. Scrawny cows and donkeys testify to the poverty of the countryside. A Pierre Cardin billboard just outside Tirana promises to bring “French fashion to Albania,” but this most backward of east European countries has far to travel before catching the rest of Europe. The road to the border remains blighted with reminders of Albania’s Cold War paranoia: hundreds of personal concrete bunkers, built to defend the country against a NATO invasion, sprouting like tiny mushroom pods on the barren hills.

Yet on the very week that NATO was actually waging a war against a Balkan country, this rubbled Albanian highway became a sanctuary. For tens of thousands of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians pouring over the border, the road to Tirana was one of the few lifelines leading away from the pyre of hatred and death behind them. The men, women and children who walked or drove out of Kosovo—170,000 by the end of last week with long lines still heading that way—told chillingly similar stories of what they endured at the hands of Serbian troops and police. “After two nights of bombings, they robbed and killed, and burned all the houses,” said a sagging Sadi Hashoni, 49, after making it safely to Tirana. No matter where they came from, the Kosovars told matching tales of evil: of towns shelled and buildings burned; of being told to leave at once or be killed; of young men separated from their families and not yet heard from; of identity papers shredded and property deeds destroyed.

The efficiency of the Serb cleansing rested upon its brutality. ‘There were bodies everywhere,” said one woman on a still-working telephone from the Kosovo town of Mitrovica on March 30. Her description is contained in an observer’s report for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe obtained by Maclean’s. “Some bodies had been dragged out to the streets and left there to rot and people were firing guns all over the place,” she told the OSCE, adding that the town’s mosque

and all Albanian businesses right down to rickety street kiosks had been burned. The atrocities, coupled with the systematic destruction of personal identity documents, indicated that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was doing more than fighting a war against the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA By the end of the week, the outside world had come to ask whether Milosevic was actually engaged in an audacious attempt to empty Kosovo of its 1.8 million ethnic Albanians.

The Serb government in Belgrade claimed the refugees were fleeing in terror from the NATO air strikes. But on the road to Tirana, where buses crammed with refugees bounced their way south, there was no evidence to support that claim. “We don’t blame NATO. If anything, it came too late,” said a dishevelled but assertive 63year-old Abdul Destani, who fled from Kosovo with his family of nine. And there were obvious signs the Kosovars fled in haste. Those lucky enough to drive their own cars out of Kosovo could now be easily spotted by their missing licence plates, which the Serbs insisted be removed at the border. Despite the weary children jammed into back seats or perched on parents’ knees, the fleets of slow-moving Ladas and Audis rode high over Albania’s potholes—there were so few possessions on board to weigh them down.

This was the road which Time Rexhepi and nine members of her family travelled on towards their uncertain future last week. Sitting in the damp living room of an apartment in the tiny town of Mamuras, 45 km north of the capital, she tugged violently at her bare neck to show how a necklace she once owned had been ripped away by Serb police. She said the police had entered their home in the Kosovo village of Jakova while guns were trained on their house. “We didn’t know what to do, so we said: Let them take everything,” Rexhepi recalled. “They came and broke everything in the house, took everything we had.”

Including some of the men. Rexhepi’s son is missing. With her six-year-old grandson, Elbasan, leaning against her legs, she described how the police beat the boy’s father. She thrashed her feet and chopped at the back of her head to show how he was kicked and hit. “My son, they wanted to kill my son,” she said, her head lolling back, her voice rising. Behind Rexhepi, her daughterin-law pulled two other children closer. Ten days after that first attack, Rexhepi continued, “the Serbs returned when we were in the fields taking care of the animals. They lit our village on fire.” Their tractors stolen, the family walked to the border, she said, crossing into Albania after three nights spent in the

woods. Again, she pantomimed vigorously to show how all their identity papers were torn to pieces and tossed away.

Buses brought them south as far as Mamuras. "When I saw them, I realized these were my people,” said Preng Lala, a muscular Albanian policeman. He said he found a Mamuras family willing to take them in. “We will feed them,” he said, standing in a muddy alley behind the apartment block. “We are ready to sacrifice for them.”

But relying on the kindness of other Albanians is not a viable longterm solution to the refugee crisis. The country’s limited resources for handling refugees are already strained. Ethnic Albanians have been fleeing Kosovo’s violence for a year now, and the escalation of that trickle into a deluge is also testing the patience of its desperately poor people. Albanians still refer to Kosovars as “brothers,” but the two groups are more like country and city cousins. Under the lengthy, cruel dictatorship of Stalinist Enver Hoxha, Albanians lived an isolated, suspicious existence. Tirana was awash with conspiracy theories last week: rumours that Milosevic was colluding with—even paying—the Albanian government to move the Kosovars out was one. “Something is not right,” said nightclub owner Kadrush Daka with a thin smile. “And Albania is corrupt.”

Many Kosovars, by comparison, have had the chance to travel and been exposed to European influences. ‘There is some jeal-

ousy here because they have had a better life,” said l)aka, who had come to a Tirana refugee camp in search of tamily members he hadn’t seen in 28 years. ‘They are more educated, more civilized, because they saw Western civilization while this country was blacked out.”

There is potential for a culture clash. Some poor Albanian^ have demanded rent from Kosovar refugees who came to stay months ago and haven’t moved on. In Tirana, there were stories last week of Kosovar families arriving at the home of Albanians who liad offered them shelter, only to turn up their noses at the housing conditions and walk away. “I’m actually pleasantly surprised by the warmth Albanians are showing,” said Aijana Olldashi, an Albanian development worker in Tirana who insisted the anecdotal evidence of trouble is overstated. “If anything, we feel badly because we axe so poor that we can’t offer them much.” But Albania cannot be ex pected to absorb the population of Kosovo. “Oh no, they can't stay here,” said Olldashi. “There is nothing to do. No work. Even Alba nians don’t want to stay here.”

That’s what so badly alarms western Europeans, buddenly, a cou pie of hundred thousand people—at least—are on the move in a coi -ner of the Balkans. Albania is a barely functioning state, weakened by official corruption and unable to police itself. It is an enui mously

difficult country in which to mount a massive relief operation, particularly because of the terrible roads over mountainous terrain. “We are making this much difference,” says German aid worker Ludger Wennemann as he holds his thumb and finger a half-inch apart. Stripped of documents, the Kosovars are easy prey for human smugglers. And many will be looking to escape the region altogether by heading for Western Europe.

“Physically, there just isn’t room in Albania for this many refugees,” said Jon Hinchliffe, head of the Albanian delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He stood within a whiff of the fetid water standing in the bottom of three partially drained swimming pools in a Tirana park, around which rows of olive-green tents had been pitched for 2,000 refugees. “If you were Milosevic,” he said, diplomatically choosing to pose his theory as a question, “don’t you think your best weapon against NATO would be to unleash two million refugees on Western Europe? That,” he said, “is a far more effective weapon than any MiG fighter could be.”

Certainly NATO seemed unprepared for so blatant and bloody an assault on civilians. Western governments were well aware Milosevic was preparing for war; they just

thought he would direct his fire at the KLA Monitors for the Kosovo Verification Mission, who were responsible for ensuring compliance with last year’s now-shattered truce, chronicled the build-up in their reports. ‘We let it get away on us,” said Doran Vienneau, who served as an OSCE observer in Kosovo until all foreigners pulled out on March 22. The St. John, N.B., native sat in a Tirana hotel last week, preparing to return to

‘NATO didn’t know the Serbs like we knew them’

the border to interview refugees and speculating on what mistakes the West made in dealing with Milosevic. ‘Troops were supposed to be confined to barracks, but the Serbs insisted they had the right to go out to ‘train,’ ” he said. “Then all of a sudden, hundreds of new troops would show up. Troop rotation,’ the Serbs said. But the soldiers who were already in Kosovo never left. We let the Serbs get away with denying us access to things we were supposed to verify. They said, You can’t come in,’ and we just said, ‘OK’ ”

Alarm over the build-up was dutifully reported by the monitors. But reports out of Brussels last week said NATO officials were stunned when Milosevic turned to systematically terrorizing civilians. “It’s obvious now that plans for this go back perhaps as far as a year,” one NATO official told Maclean’s. “But it was more than difficult to imagine that in a country of two million people, Milosevic would try to empty 90 per cent of it. It was inconceivable.”

Few refugees were critical of NATO. After all, the alliance remains their best hope of driving Milosevic’s forces from Kosovo. “I blame NATO to a degree, yes,” said Ramadan Gashi, a 24-year-old primary school teacher who fled his flaming suburb of Suhareka. Low-level ethnic cleansing had been going on there for months, but the dramatic expulsions only began four days after the NATO bombs started falling. “They should have at least foreseen what would happen to our people,” he said. “They didn’t know the Serb government very well. Not like we knew them.” Yet he, too, argued NATO should keep up the campaign, “so our country can be free and we can go home.”

Gashi was standing in the pebbled courtyard of a technical college that had been converted into a refugee shelter in the port city of Dürres. With housing space and blankets in desperately short supply, Albanian police were trying to push new arrivals to communities further south. Inside the concrete school building, refugees slept 15 to a room, with running water for just four hours a day and no way to cook a meal. “But they still want to come to Dürres,” said aid worker Wennemann as he handed out biscuits to children from the back of a truck. “There is a port here.” Dürres is not Albania’s main smuggling port, but $1,000 (U.S.) will still get you a seat on a speed boat to Italy, said the men in the courtyard. They did not yet know what the war had done to the price.

But not everyone wants to get to the West. Not 72-year-old Fatima Kruzio, who sat in a corner of the courtyard and steadily described the bloody day when she had been separated from her husband in the village of Leshon. She only wanted to know where he was. Not Susana Dalaku, a 22-year-old seamstress, who had already been a refugee within Kosovo for a year, moving to four different villages before being pushed out of the country altogether. “NATO should keep bombing to free Kosovo,” she said. Dalaku was sure she would be home in a month. ‘That is our wish, to go back,” agreed teacher Gashi, his jaw trembling slightly. “Even though there is nothing left, even though they burned everything, we should go back there soon. Because wherever you go,” he added in his good English, “your home town is the best.” □