Our correspondent in Albania visited the region of the country bordering with the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, to see how it is being effected by tensions centering on the Serbian province of Kosovo, further to the east.
Koplik, Albania; 30 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Lake Shkoder, stretching over 385 square kilometers, straddles the otherwise mountainous border between Albania and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.
The police chief for the northern Albanian district of Malesia e Madhe, which stretches along the entire length of the frontier with Montenegro from Lake Shkoder to the Kosovo border, in recent years has been largely concerned with smuggling across the lake. Now, police chief Pal Marku has other worries -- a war that is visible across the waters from his office window on the edge of town and an influx of 32,000 Kosovo refugees through the nearby Han-i-Hotit border crossing with Montenegro.
As Marku was speaking to RFE/RL from his office in Koplik this week, plumes of white and gray smoke could be seen rising slowly, high into the air from Podgorica airport and adjacent oil storage tanks some 20 kms to the northwest across Lake Shkoder. Every few minutes, the rumble of detonations could be felt. As OSCE military monitors in Shkoder subsequently confirmed to RFE/RL, they sighted eight pairs of NATO warplanes engaging in a high-noon air strike -- the first daytime air raid on Montenegro and the first of three ever larger NATO air raids on Podgoricas environs over the next few hours.
No NATO ordinance is known to have fallen on the Albanian side of the border with Montenegro -- in contrast to Bulgaria. But district police chief Marku says one Serb shell did land in a field near Koplik recently, leaving a hole 1.2 meters deep and one and a half meters in diameter but causing no injuries.
The OSCE monitors also confirmed Markus allegation that the Yugoslav Army has set up a set of six "fighting positions" near the border. The monitors told RFE/RL that Yugoslav troops have been equipped with one or more anti-aircraft guns and an observation tower along a mountain ridge right on the border at Brigje about four kilometers north of Han-i-Hotit since April 20. But the OSCE cannot confirm whether some of the posts are actually on Albanian territory as Marku alleges, due to uncertainty over where exactly the border is.
In contrast to the port of Durres and Tiranas Rinas airport, which are hives of NATO activity, the only foreign military presence witnessed by this correspondent in the area are Austrian soldiers who are building a new refugee camp on the outskirts of Shkoder. With the number of refugees arriving in the Shkoder area fluctuating from several hundred to several thousand a day, that camp will reach full capacity very shortly.
The district police chief says that some 150 ethnic Albanian natives of Montenegro have fled to Albania in recent days, especially from the coastal town of Ulcinj out of fear he says of a further deterioration of the political situation in Montenegro between pro- and anti-Milosevic forces. Ethnic Albanians make up about seven percent of Montenegros population.
Marku says relatively few Kosovar refugees, no more than 100, have crossed into Albania from Montenegro illegally in the past month, that is by avoiding Yugoslav controls at the Han-i-Hotit crossing -- mainly by being smuggled for money across Lake Shkoder or over the mountains. Goods are also being smuggled -- mainly flour, grain and beer. Marku says not a drop of gasoline or oil is making it across but that claim is impossible to verify. He says Yugoslavia has a single operational armed patrol boat on the lake keeping a watch for smugglers and illegal refugees.
Smuggling is nothing new to the area. The road from Koplik to Shkoder is lined with large new, quite luxurious villas built by local residents from the profits they made smuggling gasoline across the lake to Montenegro during the international communitys pre-Dayton embargo of rump-Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, refugees continue to pour through Han-i-Hotit by the hundreds and sometimes thousands a day. Marku says a special unit of the Albanian police at the border crossing is watching for potential Yugoslav agents passing themselves off as refugees but have found none so far. What they have found are several dozen Kosovar Albanians who say they were tortured by Serb forces. Marku:
"About 35 people have been registered at the border here after having been beaten by Serb police in search of insurgents of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). They have broken teeth, broken bones, gunshot wounds and the like."
Marku says dozens more refugees have come to the Albanian police and reported details of crimes they witnessed the Serbs carrying out against Kosovar Albanians. Burin Sadiku, who is 19, comes from Dubovica near Vucitrn. He says he fled with his family to Montenegro, where he found a job working in a vineyard near Podgorica. But he says police detained him at home one week ago and took him and 13 other young men to the ruins of Podgoricas military airport, which had already been badly damaged by NATO at the outset of the air strikes. At the airfield he says, police beat him and the others.
"There were three soldiers there near a manhole. They put a noose around my neck and interrogated me about my brothers and sisters, asking if they are in the UCK. They threatened to throw me into the hole unless I told the truth. They separated me from the group and put me alone in a room. Then one soldier asked another whether he wanted to beat me. They then started beating me with a truncheon on my belly. I fell but they pulled me up and another soldier beat me on my chest with the truncheon. Then one by one the soldiers beat me on different parts of my body. But then my boss arrived and asked the soldiers, what is the matter with this guy? He asked me, Has anyone beaten you? The soldiers denied it and made it clear that if I said yes, they would beat me again."
Sadiku says he was released a few hours later. He says he has no idea what happened to the 13 other detainees. Teams from the OSCEs Kosovo monitoring mission are at Han-i-Hotit and other border crossings, interviewing new arrivals for evidence of human rights violations and war crimes for forwarding to the War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague.
Three doctors at Han-i-Hotit are inspecting refugees in need of medical aid, including those who have been beaten before being allowed to leave Yugoslavia.
Yugoslav authorities are allowing a larger percentage of young Kosovar Albanian men to leave the province via Montenegro than directly to Albania, although women, children and the elderly still make up the overwhelming majority of refugees. But in contrast to UCKs recruiting operations on Albanias border with Kosovo and at the port of Durres, the UCK maintains no visible presence on the Montenegrin border or at the Shkoder refugee camps. Marku insists the UCK "does not exist" in his district.
Young men who enter Albania at Morina near Kukes on the Albanian border or at the port of Durres pass through recruitment checkpoints of the UCK. Over the weekend, Albanian authorities briefly detained three UCK recruiters, reportedly in civilian clothes, in a refugee camp near Kukes and escorted them out of the area on the grounds that they were creating a potential justification for Serb forces to shell the area. The Serbs began shelling the camps shortly after the news of the detentions leaked out.
Ibrahim Avdijaj is 19. He is one of many young men in the Shkoder tobacco factory refugee camp with plenty of time on his hands.
"If the UCK comes here we are ready to go with them and fight."
But Avdijaj says he has never been approached by UCK recruiters -- neither in his native village in Kosovo, nor in Albania.
Maliq Pocaj is 22 and a third year Pristina law student from Iztok now in the Shkoder factory refugee camp. He says he and his family were, as he puts it, forced to leave their land "because no one came to defend us and our village was in flames." He says that he could not fight with the UCK while he was in Kosovo because he was too busy with his studies and looking after his family. He too says that since they arrived, no one has approached him to join the insurgents. He is less critical than others about the conditions at the tobacco factory camp. He says for now, it is enough, adding that the important thing is that his family got out of Kosovo alive.