World

Flight from Terror

Amid glimmers of peace, Kosovo refugees land in Canada

Tom Fennell May 17 1999
World

Flight from Terror

Amid glimmers of peace, Kosovo refugees land in Canada

Tom Fennell May 17 1999

Flight from Terror

World

Amid glimmers of peace, Kosovo refugees land in Canada

Tom Fennell

Behar Thyseni pulled on his black-and-red nylon track suit, stood in the door of the Second World War aircraft hangar and peeked out at Canada. The day before, the brown-haired 14-year-old from Kosovo had been living with his parents in a squalid, overcrowded refugee camp in Macedonia. He was flown to Canada along with 246 of his countrymen to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, and then bused to an old air force training centre that had been turned into a massive dormitory. Now secure in Canada, Thyseni seemed to forget the war raging in Yugoslavia for a few moments as he stepped outside into the brilliant sunshine. He smiled at first, but when Thyseni tried to talk about the violence he had seen, a deep sadness filled his brown eyes. Wordlessly, he turned and walked back into the dark redbrick hangar.

Kosovo’s horrors may weigh hardest on the children. As their parents spoke quiedy outside their cavernous new home 165 km east of Toronto, the refugee kids, a few still in pyjamas, turned the paved parking area into a playground. Some pushed teddy bears in strollers they had been given by Red Cross volunteers. Others skipped rope and kicked a soccer ball. Demis Leskovci, 12, and his brother, Emis, 10, sporting new buzz cuts and dressed in summer shirts and short pants, stopped playing just long enough to mug for a photographer. When Demis, who spoke in halting English,

was asked if he was happy to be in Canada, he raised his thumb skyward and beamed. But his smile melted away when he tried to talk about his grandfather. Finally, his green eyes filled with tears. “Massacre,” he said, dropping his fist through the air.

The first airlift of refugees who had fled the war in Yugoslavia’s Kosovo province began last week with the chartered Royal Airlines Airbus A-310 that brought Behar and Demis to Canada. Most arrived with a few dirty clothes, tales of unspeakable terror, and a determination to return and rebuild their shattered lives. Over the next three weeks, nearly 5,000 people are expected to be airlifted to CFB Trenton and CFB Greenwood in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. From there, they will be transferred to other military bases in Ontario and the Maritimes where they will be housed until they either integrate into Canadian communities across the country— or return home to peace.

That prospect grew a little after the outline of a peace plan

emerged from a meeting in Bonn of foreign ministers of the Group of Eight countries—which include Yugoslavia’s closest friend, Russia. Although Moscow had long opposed military peacekeepers in Yugoslavia, it agreed that “effective international civil and security presences”—meaning military forces— could be deployed in Kosovo as part of a deal. But if peace does not come soon, the United Nations may ask Canada to take a larger number of refugees in the coming weeks— something that Immigration Minister Lucienne Robillard says Canada would be more than willing to do. The decision to airlift 85,000 Kosovars to 32 countries outside the immediate region—including Canada, the United States and even Brazil—was an indication of how terrible conditions have become in the refugee camps in Macedonia, which now house almost 200,000 people. Some have only one toilet for every 200 people.

In early April, Ottawa had announced that 5,000 would be coming, but then abruptly cancelled the airlift. The reason: by relocating the refugees, NATO countries feared they would help Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic I achieve his goal of ridding his country of its Albanian minority. But with the overcrowded conditions threatening outbreaks of disease, and the Macedonian police using batons against women and children to force them back across the border into Yugoslavia, the UN high commissioner for refugees asked governments around the world to finally begin the airlift. Louis Gentile, a UN field worker in Macedonia, told Macleans the country’s treatment of the displaced Kosovars was an affront to international humanitarian law. “It’s outrageous,” said Gentile, “a disgrace.” Macedonian officials countered that they were not getting adequate international help with an influx that threatens the delicate ethnic balance of the Slav-dominated country.

Most of the new arrivals in Canada appeared to be in good health and were clearly happy to have left the camps in Macedonia behind. As he stepped down from the plane at Trenton, one young boy threw his arms around the neck of Lt.-Col. Mark Sellars, moving the veteran of Bosnian peacekeeping missions close to tears. Other children high-fived with the unarmed soldiers who lined the runway. One old man, who had to be helped down the steps of the airliner,

The global refugee airlift was an indication of how terrible conditions have become in the refugee camps in Macedonia

proudly saluted and shook hands with a soldier.

Within minutes of landing, their health was assessed and they were then driven to their new home—a hangar that until a few weeks ago housed almost 30 obsolete jet trainers.

Hundreds of green cots were laid out in rows with new pillows and blue blankets folded neady at the foot. Dr. Colin Harwood of Health Canada, who heads the medical team at Trenton, said most of the refugees were in remarkable condition, considering their ordeal. “A lot of them are farmers,” he said. “They are pretty sturdy folk.” Three psychiatrists were also brought in to assess their mental state, but Harwood said it was too soon to determine if any were suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Ghasije Shehu, a 16-year-old high-school student from the Kosovo capital of Pristina, was certainly suffering from mental stress. Unable to speak in English, she fell into the arms of a Red Cross volunteer and broke down. Later, she produced a drawing that graphically detailed her nightmare. “My house,” she said, pointing to a building in the drawing that was in flames and under fire from Serbian tanks.

Nexhat Reka, 19, had no such trouble explaining what had happened to his family. Soldiers, he said, had kicked open the door of his home near Pristina in early April and ordered

his family to leave immediately for Macedonia. They had good reason to be afraid. His older brother had disappeared and was later found dead, said Reka. He punched the air with his fist to indicate his brother had been stabbed to death, and said sadly: “We have graves in Kosovo.”

The journey to Canada for so many of the refugees began

in a violent confrontation in their living rooms with Serbian police and soldiers. Sami Ademi, who arrived in Trenton with 15 of his relatives, owned two clothing shops in Pristina. He was making a comfortable living for his wife and four children when the soldiers pounded on his door in late March. When he opened it, armed troops barged in and ordered the family to immediately pack up and leave.

They spent the next few nights with friends in another part of the city, but soon a terrifying knock rattled that door as well. This time, they were ordered to go to Macedonia. The family then began the dangerous 150-km march to the border—along a route they hoped had not been mined by soldiers. Last week, as Ademi waited patiently to be processed into Canada, he said he would never again be able to live in Kosovo with his Serbian neighbours. “Relationships,” he said, “have been destroyed.”

Despite the horror, Ademi still hopes to return home. “I want to see if I have something there,” he said. “I want to do something.” For now, he just hopes to see his younger sister Sadete, who moved to Toronto in 1995. She told Macleans that other members of her family were also driven violently from their homes, including her father and sister. The family had gathered at her father’s home in Pristina on the morning of April 5. “The police came and they heard a lot of shooting,” said Sadete. “My family was on the balcony of their apartment and one of their neighbours, a friend who lived close by, was shot by a sniper.” Fearing that the women would be raped by the soldiers, the family fled. “They went in sandals,” said Sadete. “They did not even have time to put on their shoes and jackets.”

Ahmet Konjuri, who landed at Greenwood with his wife, his 80-year-old mother and five children, was turned out of his home on April 4 by Serbian military police. Everyone in the town of 1,300 was assembled in the streets by the heavily armed soldiers and told to leave for Macedonia

at once. “I am not very happy to be here,” said Konjuri. “Nobody wants to leave their homeland.”

More Albanians are arriving in Canada under the government’s family reunification program. Among the 60 or so who have come so far are Flamur Kadriu, 31, and his 29year-old wife, Lumnije, who last week spent their first days in the country in a downtown Toronto hotel, helped by an aid group. Expecting their first child in three months, Flamur, a veterinarian, and Lumnije, a journalist, fled Pristina amid an intensifying climate of fear. In late March, Lumnije said, Serbian authorities began cutting the power at 5 p.m. every day. At night, cars full of armed and masked men patrolled the streets, setting fires, detonating explosives and looting stores. “We were afraid to sleep at night,” said Lumnije. They drove to Macedonia in a convoy on March 30, and spent four cold, rainy nights stranded at a border crossing with thousands of refugees before being admitted. After staying with friends in Skopje, they came to Canada. “People have been very kind to us here,” Lumnije said. “But we hope we are going back some day.” How soon will that be? Even as NATO stepped up its bombing of Serbia last week, there were signs that a deal on Kosovo may be slowly taking shape. The G-8 meeting in Bonn brought together the representatives of six leading NATO countries—the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Italy—plus Japan and Russia. Their agreement on “general principles” for a political solution calls for the removal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo, the establishment of an interim administration under the auspices of the UN Security Council, and the return of all refugees. A peacekeeping force supervised by the United Nations, and possibly incorporating Russian and Ukrainian troops, would be deployed to guarantee the safety of the returning refugees. All of this was to be endorsed by the Security Council. But NATO did not help its cause late last week when its bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and a hospital in the southern city of Nis. NATO Secretary General Javier Solana called the bombing “a deeply regrettable mistake.” An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was held in New York City. China, a fierce opponent of the campaign against Yugoslavia, holds a UN veto.

Russian special envoy Victor Chernomyrdin was set to present the G-8 proposals to Milosevic this week. But the exact makeup of the Kosovo force is a major stumbling block. In public, at least, Milosevic has accepted only the presence of a lightly armed group of UN peacekeepers made up of non-NATO soldiers. The G-8 agreement did not specify that NATO troops must be involved, but U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was among several ministers who insisted that it meant “a strong military force with NATO at its core.” The thousands of refugees flooding into Canada could only hope the G-8 initiative would eventually bear fruit. “As soon as possible,” said Konjuri, “I want to go back to Kosovo.” For now, however, the crisp confines of a Canadian military camp will have to do.

D’Arcy Jenish

Richard Dooley

Paul Wood