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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Families Struggle To Reunite After Fleeing

Stenkovec, Macedonia; 8 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Having been driven from her home by armed Serbs, Fatmire Dumhisi -- a 21-year-old ethnic Albanian woman who was studying biology in Pristina -- says she considers herself lucky to be alive and safely settled temporarily in a refugee transit center on Macedonian soil.

But she says she's alone in the world. Tearfully, she recites a litany of loved ones from whom she's been separated. "Everyone is missing," she says. "My mother, father, sisters, brothers, grandmother, grandfather, uncles." She says they were last heard of in their home village of Mitrovica three weeks ago. Since then, there has been no news, and Fatmire fears they all may have been massacred by Serbian paramilitary forces.

Being driven from their homes at gun point is merely the beginning of the horrors described by much of Kosovo's large ethnic-Albanian population. During their flight across the border into Macedonia, many families were split up and are now frantically trying to find their relatives, so far mostly unsuccessfully.

At the transit camp that NATO erected on the Stenkovec air field -- a camp NATO calls Brazda between Skopje and the Kosovo border -- an RFE/RL correspondent interviewed dozens of refugees who have lost contact with members of their families following their flight from Kosovo. In several hours at Brazda, our correspondent did not encounter one person who said his or her family had remained intact.

Eleven-year-old Majlinda Demas says she was driven from her home in Pristina by masked paramilitaries along with seven other family members, but arrived in Brazda with only her mother and grandmother.

In a strong, clear voice, Majlinda described the chaotic scene at the Blace border crossing from Kosovo into Macedonia, where her family thought it better to split up into smaller groups to dash across.

"First my father took the smallest child and went in a truck -- I don't know exactly -- and also my uncle went with his kids and after a while my sister went with my aunt, so I stayed alone with my mother and grandmother. We were running and running, small groups of members of my family, because the [Macedonian] policemen did not want to let us through the border."

Once the refugees escaped from Kosovo, thousands of them were held for as long as a week in a "no-man's land" between the Serbian and Macedonian borders or just inside Macedonia at Blace.

As international pressure mounted on the Macedonian government to move them to more humane conditions, Macedonian authorities began sending them to newly erected transit or refugee camps. This resulted in even more family separations.

Xhezahire Dugolli -- a 70-year-old woman from Drenica -- wandered the Brazda camp searching for her son, whom she says she last saw 10 days ago. She says Macedonian policemen picked the weakest from the vast sea of refugees at Blace to be taken to a camp. As a result, she was allowed to move on with her daughter-in-law and grandchild but says her son was forced to stay behind.

Another refugee told of seeing a pregnant woman sent ahead alone, while her husband was kept behind.

Florie Zuka -- an 18-year-old who says she fled Pristina with her parents, four sisters and two brothers -- also tells a tale of what she calls the heartless Macedonian policemen who selected those who were allowed to move further into Macedonia.

"The Macedonian police separated our family. They left my mother with two kids on the other side and let me pass with my brothers and my father."

Yet another agonizing phase in the separation of families took place overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday when Macedonian authorities -- without warning -- emptied the Blace border crossing by loading more than 9,000 refugees on 119 buses and sending them to Albania. Several thousand more were transferred to Brazda in preparation for flights to other European countries.

Paula Ghedini -- a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Skopje -- was furious at the results of the unexpected action by Macedonian authorities. She said that, in some cases, families were put on four different buses and sent to four different locations, making the process of family reunification even more difficult.

Macedonian authorities defended their actions by saying the refugees were better off being moved anywhere rather than being left in the open at Blace.

Most heartbreaking for the refugees at Brazda is the fact that, so far, there is no central tracing service to help reunite families. And with credible reports of Serbian massacres coming out of Kosovo, many fear the worst.

Ismail Mavriqi has not seen his wife and children for 10 days:

"I don't know if they killed her or if she is in Albania or Macedonia. I don't know anything about her."

The agencies that usually help to reunite families -- the UNHCR and especially the Red Cross -- have pleaded for time and understanding. Jo Hegenauer -- the head of the Pristina office of the UNHCR, now in Macedonia -- said a registration system will be set up as soon as possible. As he told our correspondent, "Our first priority was to get these people out of the mud and filth, get them food, water, shelter and medical attention. Next, we will turn our attention to tracing people and putting families back together.

But he cautioned that such efforts will take time.