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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Refugees Show Relief At Albanian Border

As thousands of ethnic Albanians from Serbia's Kosovo province continue to stream across its borders in search of refuge, our correspondent reports on the situation this week on the Albanian border.

Morina, Albania; 4 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The sole remaining Albanian border crossing for ethnic Albanians fleeing or being expelled from Kosovo is hard-pressed to cope with the daily influx.

The new arrivals are in a state of nervous exhaustion and shock as they cross the border, finally safe from the threat of rape, torture or death. Many are visibly shaking. Within minutes, as the reality of having reached safety sinks in, they break town in tears of relief mixed with anguish over the fate of those still in Kosovo and uncertainty over whether they will find loved ones who fled earlier.

Last Friday, 12,800 refugees crossed into Albania at Morina, mainly from the multi-ethnic district town of Prizren, about 19 kms away. On Saturday, another 7,000 refugees crossed over. By Sunday, the number had dropped to 2,600 as Serb forces began turning back the refugees.

Serving as a reminder of the proximity of the war, shortly after midnight on Monday NATO jets dropped three precision-guided bombs on a small Serbian hill-top radio base less than a kilometer from Morina. Albanian police say they do not believe anyone was at the base as the Serbs generally leave at nightfall. This marked the first NATO attack near Morina since air strikes began 40 days ago.

The air strikes raise fears among the six-man Albanian contingent stationed at Morina that the Serbs might target them. One night last August, Serb forces raided the Morina customs house in what Albanian police say was a failed attempt to capture the overnight shift. But they failed to take hostages and left behind nothing more than a few bullet holes and a broken window.

Last week, NATO attacked a Serbian customs station near Qafe e Prushit, to the northwest, on the Djakovica-Kruma road. The Serbs retaliated the next day by destroying the Albanian customs house, shutting down the only other border crossing between Kosovo and Albania besides Morina.

The Morina crossing is littered with the previous days waste: mostly apple cores, orange peels and old ration packets. TV camera crews and photographers arrive and await the days refugees. Occasional gunfire and one loud explosion less than a kilometer to the southeast can be heard just across the border. NATO aircraft fly high above, invisible to the naked eye despite the clear weather.

Last Friday, the refugees started entering Albania at 7:30 am, but on Monday it's not until 1:00 p.m. that the first cars arrive at Vrbnica on the Serb side of the border. The camera teams and photographers swing into action, training their telephoto lenses across the border as Serb police confiscate license plates and personal identification papers before waving the traffic on.

Soon the first cars arrive on the Albanian side. An Albanian unsuccessfully tries to shoo away camera teams from approaching the column of vehicles. Aid workers begin dispensing blankets, bread, baby food and disposable diapers. One Red Cross worker puts her hand through the open car windows to welcome and comfort the new arrivals.

Reporters thrust microphones toward the drivers, asking where they had come from, whether they had left voluntarily and whether they had seen any dead bodies along the road. The first driver, a businessman whose name is Arsin Byqushi describes why he left.

"Every day there are killings and mistreatment of people. They took our papers but not money. There is mistreatment and pogroms. We know that there are a number of young people imprisoned in the Qani Nushi sports center in Djakovica. They burned everything we had."

Enver says the town of Djakovica is heavily bombed and that many houses have been burned down in what he describes as "a catastrophe".

The next driver is also a businessman. He describes himself as a pacifist who does not understand politics. He says a week ago, with virtually nothing left to eat or drink, he decided the time had come to take his wife and five children to Tirana where he has relatives and friends. In his words, "life had become like a Hitchcock film."

"We were completely isolated. About 50 percent of Djakovica is destroyed."

Minutes later, the first refugees on foot arrive, having been bused from Prizren to Zur and then walking seven kms to the border.

Once on Albanian territory and past the brief border formalities, they sit down in a pasture. Many begin weeping uncontrollably. One 15-year old boy, Enver Krasniqi, whose sisters and mother were crying, says they left their homes in Starova near Suha Reka two weeks ago, wandering from village to village as the war raged around them.

Q. Why are your sisters crying?

A. They have burned our houses.

Q. Can you imagine going home soon?

A. Yes!

Q. Under what circumstances?

A. NATO will destroy Serbia.

Nearby, a smartly dressed young woman stands alone in the field, weeping. Seeing a reporter approach, she introduces herself in English.

"Hello I am Floria Vilu. I am from Orahovac."

Q. When did you leave Orahovac?

A. I'm sorry. (She cries)

Q. It's OK.

A. I don't know where is my family.

Q. You came alone today?

A. Yes.

Floria says her family left one and a half months ago. She says she believes they are in Kukes, along with more than 100,000 other refugees. An official orders the exhausted Kosovo refugees to get up and board buses, but not to get separated from the rest of their families. Ahead of them is a winding 21 kilometer ride to Kukes where they will be registered at the prefects office. They will be either allocated a tent in one of the overloaded refugee camps around the town or else sent onwards in Belgian army trucks to refugee camps in the lowlands or in rickety Albanian buses to communities around the country.

Those with their own cars and tractors head over the mountains to the coast in their own slow-moving convoys, into exile in Europe's only Third World country.