Albania's policy of unlimited acceptance of Kosovar refugees has resulted in the estimated influx of some 350,000 in the past month. Few of these people ever visited Albania before. Fewer still expected the utter devastation and poverty they would have to endure in Europes poorest country or -- as RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele found -- that they would be the object of envy by local Albanians.
Shkoder, Albania; 30 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A disused cigarette factory in a derelict industrial area on the edge of Albanias second-largest city, Shkoder, is serving as temporary shelter for some 5,000 Kosovar Albanian refugees. They are a mere fraction of the 360,000 who have fled or been expelled from the Serb-controlled province over the past five weeks.
They live here in squalor, crowded a dozen families or more into dark, windowless rooms once used for storing, cutting and rolling tobacco. The wail of babies and the cries of children drown out conversation at times. Mud and brackish water cover most of the courtyard below, where scores of women take turns washing the few items of clothing they and their families were able to take with them from Kosovo.
Most of the refugees in Shkoder come from northwestern Kosovo, the area around Pec, and Iztok. They were forced by Serbian forces to vacate their homes within minutes and leave the province by the shortest route -- to the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro -- by whatever available means: car, tractor or on foot. As a result, many larger families became separated.
Sultani Jashari, a 22-year-old nurse, says she and her parents and younger brother and sister went by tractor while four other sisters went on foot. She has not seen them in two weeks and breaks down in tears when she recites their names, ages and the telephone number where they can find her:
Jashari says she and her family spent two days in "deplorable conditions" in the Montenegrin mountain village of Rozaj before being bused without harassment to the Albanian border crossing at Han-i-Hotit on the Pogradec-Shkoder road.
Like many of the more than 32,000 Kosovar refugees who have passed through Montenegro, the Jasharis were able to keep their Yugoslav identity papers. Serb authorities on the border with Kosovo, in contrast, routinely confiscate all documents from departing refugees.
Shpresa Pllana is looking for her brother and sister from whom she and the rest of their family became separated as a result of a 4 a.m. raid on their house in Mitrovica one week ago by masked Serbs in black uniforms.
"They kicked in the doors, smashed the windows, knocked down shelves and destroyed furniture. We left our house immediately. We had no time to gather our documents. We walked two days and one night to Prizren [100 km], then got a lift on my uncles tractor [the last 18 km] to the border at Morina, but had to wait there for two days."
Pllana says the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo came as no surprise:
"I knew from very early on that Milosevic has said repeatedly, I will clean out Kosovo."
But she -- like so many other refugees -- says she will return to Kosovo "very soon," but not as long as paramilitary forces are on the rampage.
Twenty-three-year-old Zilihata Filaj is from Jablanica, southeast of Pec. She says she fled with her mother, three brothers and sister for the mountains three weeks ago after Serb forces shelled their home, setting it afire. But she says the Serbs also shelled their mountain refuge, and so they fled to Rozaj in Montenegro, where they stayed for five days before being bused to Albania.
She says no one in her family had time to take their papers. Everything was burned along with their home. Other family members whom she declines to identify remain in the mountains of western Kosovo. She is satisfied by the conditions at the Shkoder tobacco factory:
"The conditions here are good. We have enough to eat, but the hygienic situation is not particularly good. It is not clean."
Filaj says she has every intention of eventually returning to Kosovo. But she, like most other young refugees, refuses to speak in Serbian, describing it as "the language of the enemy."
A refugee from Iztok, who declined to give his name, explains why:
"I first understood that the Serbs are our enemy when I was 16 and I was in the first year of middle school, and they took everything from us -- power, school, police, everything -- in 1991-92. I understand a little Serbian, but I cannot speak the language. When the Serbs came to Iztok, there was no need to communicate with them. The only language they have always used with us is the language of guns and grenades."
An agricultural worker from the village of Skudenica, between Iztok and Pec -- who would only identify himself by his first name, Muhamet -- says that on March 28, Serb forces ordered all the inhabitants of his village and two neighboring villages to leave their homes.
He and his family sought refuge with his sisters in another village near Pec but found themselves in the midst of shooting and shelling. They left one week later for Rozaj in Montenegro. He said he walked for 15 hours through the mountains in snow up to one meter deep with his six family members, including his 4-year-old daughter, who was too heavy to carry and who also had to walk most of the journey.
He says they came across the bodies of elderly people and babies who died during the trek and buried them in the snow. But on April 16, Serb troops arrived in Rozaj and declared, "This too is Serbia", and within hours, he said, thousands of refugees were bused down to the Han-I-Hotit crossing with Albania and from there -- to Muhamets dismay -- to the Shkoder tobacco factory refugee camp. (Insert cut six - Muhamet - in Albanian)
"I consider these conditions very bad. It is filthy and unsanitary here. This is my first time in Albania and I am shocked. I imagined that standards in Albania were much higher than this. Albanians here say that we Kosovars are better off than the locals in Shkoder but that is because we worked."
Albania emerged from decades of self-imposed isolation in the early 1990s and immediately collapsed into repeated rounds of widespread unrest. The unrest resulted in the mass migration of some half a million inhabitants, mainly to Greece and Italy. That is the Albania where hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees now find themselves.