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Yugoslavia: Kosovars In Macedonia Reluctant To Go To Albania

With refugee camps in Macedonia seriously overcrowded, the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, hit upon the idea of moving thousands of Kosovar refugees to Albania, the only country that has said it will take unlimited numbers. But Kosovar refugees now in Macedonia told RFE/RL correspondent Kitty McKinsey that they do not want to move any further from their homeland, and regard Albania as an uninviting destination.

Cegrane, Macedonia, 18 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonia already has far more ethnic Albanian refugees that it can cope with, while neighboring Albania says it will take every Kosovar expelled from his homeland.

So the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, came up with a logical solution: transfer thousands of refugees from the overcrowded camps in Macedonia to more comfortable new camps in Albania.

But the plan has foundered, so far, because few of the Kosovars now safely in Macedonia want to travel again, especially not to move any further away from their homeland that they so passionately want to return to.

New camps in Korca, in southern Albania, are already well equipped to accept 5,000 to 6,000 Kosovar refugees, and NATO has plans in the works to build accommodations in Albania for as many as 60,000.

But on the first day of the transfer last week, a mere 150 Kosovars from two Macedonian refugee camps (Stenkovec and Cegrane) agreed to go.

The UNHCR spokesman in Skopje, Ron Redmond, said the refugee agency was not disappointed at the low number because "we figured even fewer people were going on the first day."

Hasan Hasaj, 55, sitting in a tent in the Cegrane refugee camp with his wife and seven of his eight children, was one who turned down a chance to go to Albania.

"They came today and asked me, 'do you want to leave, to go to another camp in Albania?' and I refused. I want to stay here."

The Kosovars, who were the poorest people in former Yugoslavia, seem well aware that their brethren in Albania -- the poorest country in Europe -- are even less prosperous.

Bujan Shabani, a 25-year-old man from Stimle who is now in Cegrane searching for all eight members of his immediate family, says he has heard only negative things about the conditions in Albania.

It's not my will to go to Albania, but if we need to go over there to be together with all other Albanians, we will go over there. But I've also heard there are not as good conditions as here, that the conditions there are bad."

In fact, the UNHCR's Redmond says conditions in the newly constructed Albanian camps are better because they are not overcrowded. In addition, they offer better sanitation facilities -- real toilets and showers -- and kitchens for women to cook in, all things that are missing in the Macedonian camps. (EDS: Most Macedonian camps have only latrines, not real toilets, and no shower facilities.)

Redmond says the UNHCR now recognizes it will have to do some education among the Kosovars in Macedonia, perhaps making videos of the Albanian camps to convince the refugees to volunteer to go there. He has other ideas as well:

"Some of the things we are looking at are possibly taking some of the refugee community leaders to Korca to look at conditions in the camps, and then they could return here to the camps and report to the refugees on what they saw in Albania ... So although it was off to a fairly slow start, we hope to see the numbers increase in coming weeks."

Another concern of the refugees in Macedonia is that they are physically and psychologically closer to their homeland than if they moved to southern Albania.

Bafta Maskuti, a 42-year-old mother of six now in Cegrane, says that "Albania is too far from Kosovo."

She also says she has lived through too many traumas -- having her house shelled and then burned by the Serbs, being used as a human shield around Serbian tanks to protect against NATO shelling, and finally fleeing her homeland -- to contemplate moving again. She says she would only go to Albania now under duress.

"We want to stay here. Our family is all together now. I will go to Albania only if they move us by force. My desire is only to go back into Kosovo."

Moving the already-traumatized refugees by force is completely out of the question, the European Union's Acting Commissioner for Humanitarian Issues, Emma Bonino, told our correspondent in Skopje.

She says, "we should not expel them by force or at gunpoint. They have already been deported at gunpoint". She urges compassion from the Macedonian authorities and the international community as they contemplate moving Kosovar refugees in huge numbers to Albania.

She says, "I strongly hope the international community will not look at refugees like parcels, but like human beings."

The UNHCR's Redmond offers assurances that compassion will be exercised, acknowledging that "it's going to take some education, some counseling and some convincing to get people to go in such large numbers."