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Yugoslavia: Wave Of Kosovar Refugees Spreading Through Europe

By Breffni O'Rourke and Roland Eggleston

Prague, 28 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As ethnic Albanian refugees continue to pour out of Kosovo, they are finding temporary new homes as far away as Finland and the United States.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, almost 600,000 Kosovars have left the province in the last month, since Serbian forces began mass expulsions in the wake of NATO air strikes.

The flood of new arrivals goes on, and in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, yesterday, U.N. humanitarian officials said the refugee camps are now "past breaking point." Some 3,000 more arrived at the main Blace border crossing yesterday. A new camp is being prepared (at Cegrane), but it will not be ready to receive its first inhabitants until late this week.

In neighboring Albania, which has experienced the biggest refugee in-flow of all, the U.N. is resuming helicopter flights to distribute them better around the Albanian heartland, away from the present focal point at the town of Kukes, near the border.

But other countries are opening their doors to the Kosovars. Germany -- which has already taken 10,000 refugees -- said at the weekend that it is willing to house more. Switzerland is taking some 2,500; a first batch recently arrived in England; Finland is taking 1,000; a batch of 700 has arrived in Belgium; and they are also being flown to the United States. Other countries will also be taking a share, although the numbers are small compared with the total.

Not all refugee movements have a happy ending, however. Where individuals have chosen not to join officially organized programs, or are not eligible to do so, then problems and dangers have arisen.

Switzerland, for instance, has in recent days turned back hundreds of Kosovars who have tried to enter the country or transit to Germany without proper authorization. These people are now stranded in northern Italy, with scores being housed in local shelters at Como, near the Swiss border.

In the south of Italy, authorities say some 900 illegal immigrants were picked up overnight yesterday on many beaches along the coastline. Nearly all were Albanians, and many of them were thought to be Kosovars.

However, regardless of where they are heading and under what circumstances, all the refugees from Kosovo have a harrowing time behind them, having been driven from their homes by the Serbs and having sometimes witnessed atrocities.

The Brussels-based European director of Human Rights Watch, Lotte Leicht, told an RFE/RL correspondent yesterday that the patterns of behavior of the Serb forces are something of a mystery.

She said refugees arriving in Macedonia have told the group's staff that many of them were pushed from village to village for up to a month by Yugoslav forces before finally being allowed to leave the country. None of the refugees had an explanation for the military's policy. According to Rights Watch, these refugees said the Yugoslav military had sometimes directed them to a particular town, only to later be forced to flee that town. However, when they tried to flee Kosovo altogether, Yugoslav forces prevented them from leaving.

None of those to whom Rights Watch spoke could explain why the Yugoslav forces apparently wanted to keep refugees trapped in the region.

Some of the refugees from the Urosevac (Ferizay in Albanian) and Gnjilane areas of southern Kosovo spoke of atrocities. Refugees from Urosevac said they left their homes in late March, seeking shelter in the nearby village of Sojevo. They say they were forced to flee Sojevo when Yugoslav forces entered the village on April 6 and 7 and began burning houses and firing weapons.

Most of the villagers escaped into the mountains, but the very elderly and disabled were left behind. One man told Human Rights Watch that when he fled with his wife and children, he was forced to leave his paralyzed father and elderly mother behind in their home.

He said he believed the paramilitaries would not harm them. However, he said that when he returned several hours later, he found both his mother and father shot dead. This group from Urosevac tried to flee to Macedonia. They told Human Rights Watch that some were stopped by the Serb special police and Yugoslav military and prevented for several days from taking the road to the Macedonian border. Others, traveling by train, were turned back on several occasions from the border town of Djeneral Jankovic. They -- and others -- say they were repeatedly stopped by police, military or paramilitaries, turned back in the direction they had come from, told to stay in different villages, then later forced to move again.

(Irina Lagunina of the Russian Service also contributed to this report from Brussels.)