Kosovar refugees in Madedonia tell RFE/RL correspondent that money can't always save lives in Kosovo, but a lack of it can be deadly. Even the final deportation from their homeland must be paid for in cash. First of two stories.
Cegrane, Macedonia, 25 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For months, in some cases up to a year, the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo have been on the move, expelled from their homes and chased from village to village by Serbian special police, soldiers and paramilitaries.
Many have seen their loved ones killed in front of their eyes. Many have faced almost daily extortion demands for money and jewelry.
And then comes the final blow: they are forced to pay in hard currency for the privilege of being deported from their homeland to the border with Macedonia, where they seek shelter in the tent cities of the refugee camps.
Over and over, refugees tell stories of being forced to pay for the last bus ride or train ride from Kosovo to a point 2 kms north of the border crossing at Blace, from where they walk into Macedonia.
The train journeys are on a regularly scheduled train that before the war ran from Pristina through Urosevac (Ferizaj in Albanian) all the way to Skopje, the Macedonian capital. The refugees say special buses are organized for deportations by the Serb Putnik travel agency.
Refugees who arrived in the Cegrane refugee camp last week told RFE/RL that the price for the bus journey from Pristina was 40 DM per person, but only 20 DM from Ferizaj. The price of the train ride appears to depend on what the Serbs can extort from the expellees.
What is clear, says Fatime Rama, a 32-year-old woman who paid for five members of her family to be deported from Pristina, is that there are no free rides -- even for people being expelled from their homeland. "People who didn't have money couldn't get on the bus," she told our correspondent. "They tried, but they couldn't."
In her case, she says the price for each person depended on the number of people on the bus.
"One thousand deutschemarks was the price of the bus. Even if the bus is not filled, you must collect a thousand marks. It doesn't matter if there are 10 passengers or 4 passengers, they must pay a thousand marks." (1,000 DM equals $540)
She concedes it's a bizarre concept to have to pay for the privilege of being deported, but she adds: "We were only thinking of saving our lives."
Enver, a 35-year-old man from Ferizaj, also was glad to pay for his family to leave. "If we had had to stay, it would have cost much more -- our lives," he told our correspondent.
In a cruel touch, Serbs often charge refugees up to 10 times more for a return trip from the Macedonian border back into Kosovo if Serb border guards refuse to let them out of Kosovo -- as frequently happens.
Ymer Zarigi, the 60-year-old patriarch of an extended family of 30, says he paid a total of 1,000 DM for a round trip by bus and a second successful trip on the train out of the country for his huge family. He arrived in Macedonia with only 100 DM that another refugee gave him.
Refugees' stories like these show how crucial money is to whether Kosovars live or die as they are expelled from their homeland. Money can't always save their lives, they say, but lack of cash can be deadly.
Ron Redmond, spokesman for the UNHCR in Skopje, said refugees tell stories of repeated robberies and extortions.
"Not only are these people paying to ride on the train, but they are robbed quite often, especially before they leave home. People have told us about police and others coming to their doors repeatedly in their homes, morning after morning after morning until they virtually have nothing left."
Rama says that just before she was sent out of the country, policemen came to her house and took her brother into another room where they threatened to kill him. She said she doesn't know exactly what the Serbs did to her brother, but she could hear his screams as he was tortured in the next room.
She says she would have paid any amount to save her brother, but she had only 150 DM, so she handed it over. The policemen seemed satisfied and left her brother in peace.
Lack of cash nearly cost Begir Dernjani and his family their lives. The 32-year-old from a village near Kacanik, says for months he tried to leave Kosovo, but was prevented by Serbian policemen and his Serbian neighbors who demanded money for permission to leave.
Finally, he said, he was so desperate that he decided to risk his life and that of his wife and two-and-a-half year old son by escaping from the village at night and walking for 12 hours across mountains and minefields to safety in Macedonia.
Mimoza Godanci is an articulate 22-year-old economics graduate from Pristina whose experiences vividly illustrate the importance of cash at every step along the route of expulsion from Kosovo. She spoke to our correspondent in Skopje, where she is now working (for the OSCE) and supporting 19 members of her family.
She spent about six weeks on the move through Kosovo fleeing Serb terror -- including a stay in the mountains, an odyssey on foot and tractor from village to village and two return trips to Pristina before finally escaping to Macedonia.
Separated from her mother and sometimes her father, she was looking after her 18-year-old sister and 13-year-old brother as well as a cousin and a young man named Fatmir whom they met up with.
She had 5,000 DM ($2,700) with her -- all the money she had saved from a job with the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) before the organization's verifiers left Kosovo. She knew the cash could be crucial to the safety of her family.
At one point, her sister Buca was stripsearched at a Serbian checkpoint by soldiers and policemen looking for money. But they didn't touch her head, and this reminded Buca of a spy movie she had once seen where a woman hid a letter in her hair. So Mimoza gave Buca half her money and they took ingenious measures to hide it -- which served them well in repeated strip searches.
"I have very curly hair, and in the villages I didn't wash my hair for two weeks, so it became even curlier than it is now. And I had longer hair than I have now and my sister has long hair too, and she has curly hair as I have. Then we just put a rubber band around the money (and our hair in a ponytail). We even tried, even if we took off the rubber band, that money wouldn't fall out because our hair was so dirty, you can imagine that."
Mimoza said the Serbs routinely demanded money for passing checkpoints inside Kosovo and terrorized the refugees to increase the amount of money they could extort. She said her sister handed over 2,000 DM to save herself and Fatmir after the Serbs fired automatic weapons into the ground around their feet. Mimoza said several times the Serbs fired into the air around a convoy of tractors she was travelling on. Once, she says, she came upon a woman crying over the bodies of her son and two nephews who had been taken off their tractor and shot because they had no money.
"I think they did these things because most of the time when people were threatened like this, if somebody had money, they would go out of the tractor and they would say, I will give this money to you, or I will give this golden ring, or whatever."
Four times Mimoza and her sister Buca handed over 1,000 DM to save their acquaintance Fatmir -- a total of 4,000 DM. But finally they could not save him from being taken off at gunpoint by the Serbs, and she has no information about what happened to him, though she suspects the worst.
She says most of the refugees used their money not to save their own lives, but to help others.
"It's not that we tried to save our lives. I think that everybody tried to save somebody else's life. Because my life was not important at all. Sometimes even now I think it would have been better for me to die there to have a piece of land, of my land, which would be my grave in my country. But I had my brother who is only 13 and he has his life ahead and maybe he will forget about all we have passed through. And I had my sister. You only think about members of family and people those people you care for."
By the time she reached Kosovo -- penniless -- she estimates that she and her father had parted with a huge sum of money, possibly as much as 60,000 DM, just to keep the family alive.