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Albania: Kukes Commemorates 1999 Serb Expulsion From Kosovo

The exodus of some 400,000 Kosovar Albanians to Albania during the 1999 NATO air strikes in Kosovo was commemorated in the northeastern Albanian town of Kukes this week. As Alban Bala of RFE/RL's Albanian Unit reports from Kukes, three years after the humanitarian crisis, cooperation between Kosovo and northeastern Albania is minimal.

Kukes, Albania; 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- More than 10,000 Kosovar Albanians gathered in the northeastern Albanian border town of Kukes on 16 April for a ceremony to commemorate the third anniversary of the Serb expulsion -- in a single day -- of some 120,000 Albanian residents of the northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica.

Kukes was the main gateway to safety and freedom for more than 400,000 refugees hounded from their homes three years ago by Serb forces. A minority reached Albania via Montenegro, while hundreds of thousands more found refuge in Macedonia.

Ylber Zeneli is the mayor of Kukes, a small town of 20,000 inhabitants where more than 100,000 deported persons found refuge in huge, hastily erected refugee camps. Zeneli believes that remembering history will help to improve Albania's image, which is as a desperately poor, anarchic, crime- and corruption-ridden corner of the Balkans.

"[We are trying to] raise the confidence of all the international community [toward us], to revive goodwill and to increase the image of the Albanian state, which due to recent events, actually does not enjoy its proper position," Zeneli said.

One of the organizers of the rally, Kosovar film producer Qemal Sokoli, described the ceremony in Kukes as a meeting of victims comparable to Jewish commemorations of the Holocaust.

"There are similarities, because we also aim to set up a museum like the Jewish Holocaust Museum. Perhaps our history is like the Jewish one, the difference being that we are living in our territories, while the Jews were totally deported [from their homelands in Europe]," Sokoli said.

The regional prefect, Ylber Vata, oversees the northeastern districts of Kukes, Tropoje and Has, the three poorest in the country. He said cooperation between northeastern Albania and Kosovo is "hostage" to politics in Tirana and Pristina.

"[The politicians] have been talking for years about building a road to connect [the Adriatic port of] Durres with Pristina. But if you observe the reality, the existing road is virtually destroyed. It's so easy to declare that Kosova and its businessmen will have access to the harbor of Shengjin [in the north near Lezha], but emigrants who return home are not guaranteed any security on the road and can be killed, or mistreated, or robbed, even by the police. So I think we have many small but important things to carry out first, rather than the big commitments, which [eventually] should be fulfilled," Vata said.

Vata represents the Albanian parliamentary opposition in the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. He said the Albanian government has taken no steps to promote regional cross-border programs. Although regional cooperation is a priority for Albania, he said the Albanian government does not apply this in its relations with Kosovo.

Petrit Palushi is a literary critic and author living in Kukes. He said that, despite being neighbors and members of the same nation, a gulf still divides Kosovars and Albanians.

"The gulf between Albania and Kosovo still exists, due to the shortcomings of the government. The relations between Tirana and Pristina cannot show any success until their border regions foster close ties. For example, Kukes and Prizren [the neighboring municipality in Kosovo," Palushi said.

Palushi said there is a risk that Kosovo and Albania might develop what he calls relations based on myth and folklore rather than on normal ties, due to the lack of vision among state authorities. In his words, "Folkloristic relations would feed naive and vulgar nationalism, which when armed with an aggressive ideology becomes extremely dangerous."

In the economic field, cooperation between Albania and Kosovo remains underdeveloped. Cultural cooperation is gaining some ground in education but remains the personal initiative of individual local authorities.