Korca, Albania; 5 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- One night last month (April 6), Macedonian authorities, overwhelmed by the onslaught of Kosovar Albanians, suddenly deported thousands of refugees who had been kept in a holding area on the border with Kosovo for a week without shelter.
Macedonian special police, using truncheons, herded the refugees from the Blace camp onto buses and expelled them.
The sudden clearance, largely out of view of TV cameras and reporters, left behind a field strewn with personal belongings, confirming the element of surprise and uncompromising attitude of the Macedonians. At daybreak, international aid workers and journalists were bewildered by the expulsion and didn't know whether the thousands had been sent back to Kosovo, were somewhere else in Macedonia or had been sent abroad.
The refugees were just as confused. They had no idea where they were being sent as the overcrowded buses headed south through Macedonia. Some 10 hours later, the buses crossed into Albania at the tiny border post of Sveti Neum/Tushimisht on Lake Ohrid.
The commander of the Albanian side of the crossing, Flamur Gorellari, told RFE/RL "between 6,000 and 7,000 refugees" crossed the border, but that his miniscule staff was unable to handle the onslaught. He let the buses pass into Albania without any controls. They proceeded southward for another hour to a sports stadium in southeastern Albania's largest town, Korca, where Albanian authorities registered them.
Gazmen Gashi, a fourth year civil engineering student from Pristina, is still angry when he thinks of the mass expulsion from Macedonia.
"We spent six days there [at Blace]. One day there was like a thousand years. But every day was the same. We tried to get out but the police wouldnt let us. After six days, the police kicked out all the people from Blace. We traveled by bus for about 12 hours. We didnt know where we were going. Some people on the bus began saying we are going to Greece, to America, to the airport. We came to Korca and stood there for four hours and then they brought us here to Erseka."
An economist from Urosevac, Qamil Ershani, has not gotten over the expulsion.
"The mistreatment by the Macedonian police was traumatic. They squeezed 100 to 150 people on each bus. We had no idea where we were going and eventually found ourselves in Korca in Albania."
Nebahate, a 22-year-old student from Pristina, describes the expulsions from Kosovo and Macedonia as "terrible". She says she would have preferred to come to Albania voluntarily rather than by being deported to an unknown destination. She says not even the Macedonian bus driver would reveal where they were headed after they left Blace. Like so many other Kosovars, Nebahate says she was shocked by the poverty and desolation she found in Albania and fervently hopes to return to Kosovo one day.
"My reaction has been it would have been better to die than to leave Kosovo. Until I die, I will never lose my faith, my hopes, because my homeland is Kosovo."
Gazmen, Nebahate and Professor Ershani are among the 220 Kosovar refugees who are crowded into two nursery school buildings in Erseka, 45 kms south of Korca in the mountains near the Greek border. Conditions are primitive and cramped, but the refugees are just one block from the main street and so do not feel quite so isolated as those at more remote camps.
Most of the Kosovars who arrived in Korca on April 7 were either placed in the stadium and sports complex in the town or else sent to disused military bases, or to stay with local families. Since then, the international community has built two big camps in the area that are now gradually accommodating the refugees.
The German Army is just completing a camp for 5,000 refugees in a field at Qatrom near Korca. Some 2,000 refugees have already settled into the tents and some 500 new expellees a day are arriving at the camp from even more temporary quarters elsewhere. The Salvation Army is preparing the food largely supplied by the UN World Food Program and the International Red Cross, while a Spanish team, Medicos del Mundo, is providing health care and Relief International of the U.S. is managing the camp.
One of the first arrivals in the Qatrom camp was Ismet Kuleta, who fled with his family to Pristina when Serb forces attacked their village near Podujevo on March 15 -- 10 days before the NATO air strikes began. They arrived by train at Blace on April 1 and one week later Macedonia deported them to Albania. Kuleta, like so many Kosovars in Albania for the first time, was shocked by the poverty he found. He says that having watched Albanian TV in the 1980s under Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha and his successor Ramiz Alia, he had been under the false impression that Albania was better off than Kosovo.
Arben Dervishi, an actor from Korca, has been organizing concerts for the refugees at the camps in the area. He says the influx of Kosovars has added new life to the town. Dervishi describes the presence of so many Kosovars as a substitute for the thousands of citizens of Korca who have left for Greece since 1990 in search of work.
The other main camp in the Korca area is just being completed on a mountainside pasture at Piskupat on the western shore of Lake Ohrid. The Greek Army built the camp, which is being administered by the Greek Red Cross. The "Hellenic Reception Center for Refugees" at Piskupat will eventually accommodate 2,000 refugees. Rainy weather delayed the opening of the camp until last Thursday (April 29), when the first 350 Kosovars were welcomed.
The president of the Greek Red Cross, Andreas Martinis, told RFE/RL the expellees "are totally dependent on us for food, medicine, shelter and clothing".
Martinis expressed frustration with the red tape involved in importing all the necessary equipment and goods for the camp. He says paperwork required by Albanian customs at the border with Greece at Kapshtica, 80 kms away, takes a week, regardless of the type of goods being delivered. Martinis says he would prefer to be able to secure local supplies of foodstuffs, such as meat and vegetables, but so far he says this has not been possible. In his words, considering the refugees situation, the food they are getting may be a luxury -- it is all from Greece.
Hajrije Miftari-Sogojeva, an electrical technician from Pristina, having just spent her first night in one of the Greek tents, complains that at night it is too cold, while during the day it is unbearably hot.
But in another tent, four middle-aged brothers from Pristina, Mustafa Munishi, a technician, and Nazmi, Fehmi and Musli, all traders, are just happy to be alive and in Albania.
Mustafa, who several months ago underwent a heart bypass operation, describes how six Serb policemen kicked him out of his home on March 28.
"One pointed an automatic weapon at my chest and said 'Ill kill you. Another said hand over all the hard currency you have.'"
Mustafa says they took both his cars and refused to let his daughter leave with him and the rest of the family.
His brother Fehmi describes the behavior of the Macedonian special forces at Blace, however, as comparable with the Serb forces in Kosovo.
"The Macedonian special forces were so cruel -- beating refugees rather than treating them properly as befits people who have had to flee a war zone. In contrast, the ethnic Albanian residents and the international humanitarian aid workers in Macedonia really helped us tremendously."
Fehmi's brother Nazmi also sees parallels between the Macedonian and Serb police:
"The Serbian police used automatic weapons and when we got to the other side, the Skopje police used truncheons. That needs no comment."
Now safely in Albania, Nazmi says he is grateful for the generosity Albanians have shown him and other Kosovars:
"Albanians and Albania have proven themselves. Albania as a state has taken in 500,000 refugees open-heartedly. That is humanitarian -- a big heart and a big spirit."
Nazmi says a fatherless, unemployed family in Maliq took in his family as if they were their own for 25 days, showing what he terms "incredible generosity":
"We always thought of Albania as a brother, of the same blood as we are. Like the Germans, a wall divided us for many years. In the past, we could not communicate with each other but that was because of the totalitarian regime. But now Albania is one nation, one blood and has achieved democracy."
Nazmi rules out ever being able to live together again with the Serbs:
"We are for a multi-ethnic policy. But after the terrible things the Serbs have done, we will never again be able to live together with them. That is impossible. I know people who have lost two or three children, a brother, a mother. It will never be possible to live together with them (the Serbs)."
In contrast to the relative luxury of the German and Greek-built camps, the 800 refugees at a disused Albanian military supply base at Llozhan near Maliq are living under considerably worse conditions. A further 1,000 are expected to arrive by helicopter from Kukes in the next few days. This camp, in a narrow valley of derelict coal mines and apple orchards, consists of six single-story warehouses with a total capacity of 2,400 refugees. Some 500 refugees who were sent to the Albanian-run camp refused to stay and went elsewhere, either returning to families in Maliq and Korca or going on to better-equipped camps elsewhere. Llozhan camp manager Naznji Qose says those who left were all from Pristina -- "city people" as he puts it -- "with a certain standard of living".
This is one of the few bases in Albania spared by rioters, who plundered military posts across the country two years ago in response to the collapse of get-rich-quick investment schemes. Qosa says humanitarian aid organizations have promised to bring bedding to Llozhane but so far have brought none. He says the food aid that has arrived has included outdated canned goods with expiration dates from 1996.
Camp residents say breakfast consists of bread and white cheese, lunch is usually white beans and potatoes. Supper consists of the contents of yellow bags labeled "humanitarian daily rations "food gift from the people of the United States" one day's complete food rations for one person". Several refugees interviewed at Llozhane complained the contents of the yellow ration bag, including salty crackers and fruit pastries, are largely inedible and are generally thrown away uneaten. In the words of one refugee, "it is a catastrophe for the children here -- they won't eat the food."