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Yugoslavia: Refugees Forced To Pay For Final Train Ride Out Of Kosovo

  • Kitty McKinsey

One of the strangest aspects of the mass expulsions of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo is the Serbs' practice of charging the refugees for a train ride out of the country -- setting the price at whatever they can extort, and issuing regular passenger tickets. Second of two stories.

Cegrane, Macedonia, 25 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Serbian train that has delivered tens of thousands of Kosovar refugees to the Macedonian border is a bizarre cross between a regularly scheduled passenger train -- complete with paid tickets -- and the cattle cars the Nazis used to deport Jews to concentration camps.

For weeks in April and early May, the trains ran up to three times a day, from Pristina with stops in a number of Kosovo cities, deporting thousands of Kosovars at a time.

Last week, the Serbs filled the train in Kosovo, sent them to the border but refused to allow the refugees out. Aid workers like the UNHCR's Ron Redmond say they are puzzled by the Serbs' actions.

"That is something we have yet to figure out. We have seen this happen four or five times over the last month or so, and we don't know why they do that. We're never able to quite make a connection. Some of the refugees have also told us they have been loaded onto trains and the trains go back and forth within a specific village with people sitting outside firing their weapons and so on. That obviously is just sort of psychological terrorism. But as to why they ship these people all the way down here and don't let them off, we don't have a clue."

Now the trains are running again, with the Serbs charging the refugees for the deportation from their homeland.

Xhemail Hoxha, 62, the patriarch of a family consisting of 12 children and five adults from the Drenica area (a village called Domanik), said he could have never dreamed of having to pay for his family's deportation. But he paid twice -- one for a bus from Urosevac (Ferizaj in Albanian) to the border and four times as much to go back to Urosevac when the Serbs refused to let them off at the border. Then there was train fare to be paid for the final deportation -- a total of 300 deutschemarks (DM).

Hoxha was familiar with the train, having ridden it many times in peacetime all the way to the Macedonian capital Skopje. Now, he says the Serbs are issuing tickets as usual, but the price seems to be whatever they can extort from the expellees.

"The main difference is that before when you bought a ticket it had the price on it. But this time you don't have a price. They will take all the money you have."

Our correspondent in the Cegrane refugee camp talked to refugees who paid as little as 5 DM per person and as much as 150 DM per person for deportation on the same train. Redmond says it is unclear where the money goes.

I guess the train company figures it's got to keep running, somebody's got to pay for it, so they're making these poor hapless refugees -- who've already virtually lost everything -- pay again."

And conditions on the train don't bear comparison with any ordinary passenger train. Out of the 17 people in his family travelling together, Hoxha says only two entered the train through the door. The rest of them were shoved in through the windows.

And inside, compartments designed to seat six were crammed with 20 or 30 people standing, with up to 4,000 people on each train of 15 cars. One medical worker at the Blace border crossing told our correspondent she treated an elderly woman whose chest was one massive blue bruise from the pressure of other people's bodies against hers.

Hoxha says the train ride is a nightmare beyond comprehension.

"You can't imagine how it is. I can't describe it. Even in a film I never saw anything like that. My niece just gave birth three days before and even she didn't have anywhere to sit down. She had to stand."

After a journey of two hours or more, the refugees say, the doors are finally unlocked two kilometers from the Macedonian border. From there, they are forced to walk into Macedonia, where they hope to find shelter -- and a measure of peace -- in a refugee camp, or move on to third countries.