Albanian Exodus

The fighting in Macedonia has prompted tens of thousands of Albanians to flee across the border into Kosovo.

Albanian Exodus

The fighting in Macedonia has prompted tens of thousands of Albanians to flee across the border into Kosovo.

"Macedonian paramilitaries wearing masks came and told us to leave if we wanted to save our skins," said an elderly Albanian woman from Skopje, surrounded by her family's suitcases in the newly-opened transit camp at Kacanik.

Afrim Aliu, from Gulmova near Lake Treska, west of Skopje, said he and his neighbours were forced to leave because the Macedonian armed forces would not let them harvest their land. "We live on it! We're peasants," he said.

They were among the 14,000 Albanians from Macedonia who entered Kosovo last weekend as EU envoy Javier Solana hammered out a fragile truce between the Skopje authorities and the National Liberation Army.

The camp at Kacanik, on the Skopje-Pristina highway, was opened on June 24 by the UN High Commission for Refugees. "UNHCR must be prepared for a worst-case scenario," said the agency's regional envoy Eric Morris.

Two years and 15 km separate this new wave of Albanian refugees from the legendary Blace camp, across the Macedonian border, where half a million Kosovo Albanians found sanctuary after their lives were threatened by Serbian security forces in 1999.

Since fighting broke out in Macedonia in late February, nearly 1,000 Albanian refugees a day have been entering Kosovo. When the NLA seized Aracinovo, 8 km north of Skopje, at the end of May, the number soared to 4,000 a day.

The Skopje authorities have established a sand-bagged checkpoint at an intersection 10km from Blace, where police and soldiers search the refugees' vehicles and inspect their documents.

"Many families report that they had tried two or three times to cross the frontier but were turned back (by Macedonian police)," said UNHCR spokeswoman Mercedes Rose. "Others, exhausted after five hours of waiting, decided to return home and try again the next day."

Burhamedin Qazimi had just crossed the border at Hani I Elezit with his wife and two small daughters, having fled the fighting in Lisec, near Tetovo."The Macedonian police checked me four times," he said, "they were very rude. I am sorry that the girls had to experience this. Those scenes in Lisec will be forever in their minds."

"There won't be peace in Macedonia unless the NATO troops arrive," said another man, bathed in sweat and newly arrived at Kacanik. "We are shelled by helicopters and jets bought with our own taxes."

On June 26, the UNHCR appealed for $17.5 million to provide emergency assistance to more than 65,000 refugees in Kosovo and 35,500 registered by the Red Cross as internally-displaced in Macedonia.

Designed to accommodate 14,000 people, Kacanik camp provided shelter for only 10 per cent of the 2,000 new arrivals on its first day of operation about 10 days ago. After registration, the refugees wash, eat and make their way to other parts of Kosovo.

Most settle close to the border - in communities such as Dragash, Hani I Elezit, Kacanik, Vitina, Ferizaj and Gjilan - so as to be free to slip across the border and visit their homes as soon as the fighting dies down. Many are living in houses, without doors, windows, water or electricity, still being repaired after the ravages of the Kosovo war. The population of Kacanik has almost doubled in the last few weeks.

The Kosovo Red Cross pays 40 German marks per month to local families for each refugee they house. "It's not enough," said shopkeeper Hysen Syla in Ferizaj, "but we use our family reserves." He is sheltering 20 refugees in his home.

The current influx largely comes from villages between Skopje and Tetovo. "Luckily, the refugees from the Presevo valley, who came to Kosovo months before, are now going back home," said Red Cross secretary Qerim Spahiu. But there are still big problems with overcrowding.

Adem Salihaj, mayor of Ferizaj, said that 200 families with 1,100 members had arrived on June 25 alone, mostly from the suburbs of Skopje, increasing the number of refugees in the district to 12,000. He called on other Kosovan towns to share the burden by taking in more people.

The Red Cross is currently using Kacanik as a centre from which to trace and re-unite relatives who became separated in the rush to leave Macedonia. "We've managed to establish contact between four children from Slupcan and their parents," said Ylber Tufa. "Slupcan, near Kumanovo, has been totally destroyed by army shells. The parents are still living in the cellar of their house there."

Nehat Islami is the IWPR project manager in Kosovo.

Macedonia, Kosovo
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