Radusha, Macedonia; 31 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ethnic Albanians living in small villages along Macedonia's border with Kosovo say they are prepared to accept tens of thousands more refugees, challenging the government's assessment that the small and impoverished country has already taken in its limit.
The government in Skopje earlier this week said 20,000 Kosovar refugees are the maximum Macedonia can accept without upsetting the economically depressed country's finances and destabilizing its delicate ethnic balance between majority Slav Macedonians and its estimated 25 percent minority of ethnic Albanians.
With the limit of 20,000 apparently already reached -- and thousands more desperate civilians fleeing what NATO calls "a reign of terror" in Kosovo every day -- Macedonia is casting around frantically for other European countries to which to channel the new arrivals.
Zufer Bajrami -- head of the refugee Crisis Committee in the border village of Radusha -- says he respects the government's desire to limit the total number of Kosovo refugees in the country to 20,000. But he says Macedonia's ethnic Albanians are capable of sheltering vastly more in private homes.
"If these 20,000 are such a big burden for the government, then we will understand that, but I think that we personally, as an Albanian community, can accept around 100,000 in all Macedonia."
Along the Macedonia-Kosovo border -- a line that became an international border only eight years ago -- many ethnic-Albanian Macedonians have close relatives in Kosovo and are now sheltering the refugees in private homes. Ethnic-Albanian leaders prefer for their people to stay as close to Kosovo as possible, fearing that if they emigrate to distant European countries, chances are slimmer they will ever return to Kosovo.
Radusha -- a village of 2,000 people -- has already taken in 320 Kosovar refugees in the last week, and Bajrami estimates there is room for 1,300 refugees in this small village alone.
He says Macedonia's ethnic Albanians have total sympathy for the Kosovars who are now being killed or expelled by Serb forces simply because of their ethnicity.
"We have complete understanding about their difficulties and in accordance with that, we will try to help them and not to let anyone stay without a roof over his head."
Kosovar families tend to be large and extended, and Bajrami says it is understandable that -- after all that these traumatized people have suffered -- they do not like to be separated, even in emergency lodgings.
As he puts it, "They are happy to be even in a smaller place, and in worse conditions, than to be separated." One family in Radusha has taken in an extended Kosovar family of 21 people, giving them three rooms of their house. Bajrami estimates the average family in Radusha will spend about 500 Deutschmarks (DM) looking after refugees. The bill for some families could go as high as 800 DM, a vast sum in this poor country. He says the village is fairly prosperous because a large number of its men are abroad working in Western European countries and sending money home.
Although the national government has set aside an enormous amount of this year's budget -- five percent -- for caring for refugees, most of the help so far has come from private contributions of individual ethnic-Albanian citizens in Macedonia, channeled through humanitarian organizations. Contributions have come in the form of cash, clothing, medicine, staple goods like flour, and even freshly slaughtered sheep.
Ekrem Ebibi -- in charge of refugee affairs for the municipality of Kondovo, just west of the capital, Skopje -- says it is a burden Macedonia's ethnic Albanians willingly shoulder.
"I must state that the citizens of our municipality accept it as their moral, human, and national duty."
One such resident is Imarli Veapi, who has been working in Austria as a construction worker for 11 years. He was in his second home of Krems when his wife called from Kondovo to say that some of her distant relatives -- little more than acquaintances, really -- had just arrived from Kosovo seeking refuge. There were 12 of them, including a pregnant young woman who gave birth to her first child a few days ago, bringing the number to 13.
Veapi says he didn't hesitate a moment to move all of them into a large, empty second house he owns behind his family dwelling. He explains his actions simply: "They are blood. They are Albanian." He adds, "I didn't have to help; I wanted to help."
Veapi's guests -- like most Kosovar refugees now outside their country -- dream only of going home as soon as peace is restored. But if they have to stay longer, it's no burden. Says Veapi: "They can stay 10 years. They are welcome."