After 10 days when Kosovo's southern border was closed, Serbian forces have again begun allowing Kosovar refugees to flee their homeland. RFE/RL correspondent Kitty McKinsey met some of the refugees as they arrived in Macedonia's Cegrane refugee camp over the weekend and found that these most recent arrivals are people who were determined to remain in their homeland at all costs. But they say they were finally forced out by a combination of increased aggression by Serbian forces and a lack of food.
Cegrane, Macedonia; 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ajshe Musliu, a Kosovar mother of four, has been on the run for more than a year.
An ethnic Albanian, she comes from the village of Shtrubulov in the Drenica region. That region was the site of the first fighting in Kosovo, when Serbian military and police forces began their crackdown against civilians in February 1998, in the name of fighting the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).
Since then, Ajshe, her husband, three daughters and one son, along with dozens of members of their extended family, have hidden out in the mountains of Kosovo without food or shelter, or moved from village to village inside Kosovo, hoping to find a safe haven. Her extremely thin arms and legs seem to testify to the ordeal she's been through, and the long months without adequate food.
The whole family was determined to remain in Kosovo, but finally yesterday they couldn't take any more terror and privations, and made their way to the Macedonian border. Our correspondent met Musliu and her family seconds after they got off a bus, finally safe in the Cegrane refugee camp inside Macedonia.
"We escaped to the mountains in the rain, we went from one house to another, from one village to another, until we were tired and decided to come here."
She said the situation has become truly desperate for ethnic Albanians still left in Kosovo. She added that: "Right now there is no security anywhere. You will be killed."
Ajshe's experience of hiding out from Serb forces for more than a year is unusual. But the refugees who arrived in Cegrane over the weekend were people who were highly determined to remain in their homeland. They all tell stories of months on the move, trying to stay a step ahead of Serbian forces, and praying that somewhere inside Kosovo they might still be safe.
Berat Mehmeti's story is typical of the new arrivals in Cegrane. The 50-year-old patriarch of an extended family of 25, he led his family from their village of Sojev (7 km from Urosevac) into the mountains two months ago.
He says that the night the NATO air strikes started (March 24), Serbian policemen and soldiers came into their village and began shooting ethnic Albanians and burning houses. The whole village fled, sleeping in the mountains with only plastic bags over their heads for shelter, and no food.
Then began an odyssey, with short stays in four villages and two stops in Urosevac. The whole time, Mehmeti's main concern was for his 27-year-old disabled niece -- whom he refers to as his daughter -- and whom he had to cart around in a wheelbarrow.
Mehmeti says he saw Serbian police kill 14 elderly men in two separate incidents, and personally helped to bury the bodies. He says he also saw a cousin killed in front of the cousin's wife because the cousin didn't obey Serb orders to leave his wife and baby behind.
Finally the family thought they were safe in Urosevac, known to ethnic Albanians as Ferizaj, but Mehmeti says the Serbs deliberately tried to make the displaced Albanians targets of NATO air strikes. He says the Serbs dug trenches around the homes where the Albanians were sheltering, placed old cars inside the trenches, and added long plastic tubes in hopes that NATO bombers would mistake them for tanks.
Tears come to Mehmeti's eyes, and his chin trembles as he finishes his recitation. "For eight weeks," he says softly, he "tried not to leave Kosovo, but finally [he] had no choice but to flee."
"It is very hard to leave your home. All your life you are trying to do something and in the end you have to leave your home. I heard that my house isn't burned, but was burgled. The police came with trucks and took all the furniture, television, all the things I bought all through my life."
Begir Dernjani, a 32-year-old from the village of Palolenic (near Kacanik) was one who would have fled earlier, but he couldn't pay the extortion money he says his Serbian neighbors were demanding to let him out of his village.
Finally he became so desperate that on Saturday he led his wife and 2-year-old son on a 12-hour trek through the mountains and across Serbian minefields to reach Macedonia. When his wife collapsed from the ordeal, he carried both her and the baby.
"Of course we were very much afraid," he says of his ordeal, "but we saw that the children and women were in danger, so we decided to escape with them."
Enver, a 35-year-old man who declined to give his last name out of fear of reprisals against the part of his family still in Kosovo, says he had sheltered many displaced persons from Kosovo villages in his own home in Urosevac.
But with so many mouths to feed, the food ran out. Facing hunger, and with the Serbs shelling nearby homes and shooting individuals, they made the decision last Saturday to flee.
"I wasn't personally threatened, but the police were approaching, My neighbor was thrown out by force. When I saw that I left my home."
The latest refugees say most of the original inhabitants of Urosevac fled weeks ago, and their houses have been occupied by displaced people from nearby villages, who are themselves now trying to get out. They describe Urosevac as a giant prison, with ethnic Albanians afraid to walk the streets. Enver's comments were typical:
"In Ferizaj (Urosevac) right now it's very difficult, it's like being under house arrest. We have more freedom to walk around this camp than we had in Ferizaj."
Despite their earlier determination never to leave Kosovo, the new refugees crossing the Macedonian border frequently express relief to be alive and safe in a refugee camp.