Pristina In Exile

Kosovo Albanians in Skopje feel strangely at home: on the streets and in the cafes, everyone is there. But something is wrong, and many are still missing.

Pristina In Exile

Kosovo Albanians in Skopje feel strangely at home: on the streets and in the cafes, everyone is there. But something is wrong, and many are still missing.

When I arrived from Kosovo, I expected to find the Macedonia I have always known, the Macedonia I saw on my last visit a few weeks ago. But instead I saw Pristina.

Literally, throughout Macedonia, in Tetovo, in Gostivar, in Kicevo and especially in Skopje, the capital of Kosovo is in Macedonia. Everywhere I went I saw friends from home, some I hadn't seen in a week, some I hadn't seen in a long time. The streets belong to another town, but the feeling was that you were walking in the middle of Pristina.

At first, it looked wonderful, and it seemed like people were even having fun. The cafes were full, with everyone you knew. I saw all of my friends. We went to the big open market in Skopje to buy personal items we of course hadn't brought with us. And the people in Macedonia-that is, the Albanians in Macedonia-are so welcoming. The Macedonians themselves talk about "changing the demographics" of the country, and are in a bad mood: you can feel the tension. But the Albanians--they offer the Kosovars so much hospitality it hurts.

Most of all it is a time when we can be sure who is alive. We don't speak about the dead yet, because nothing can be confirmed. But least we know who is alive, because we have seen each other.

For me, the best was seeing many of my journalist colleagues, whom I hadn't seen for at least a week. And of these, the most important was Baton Haxhiu, the Koha Ditore editor whom everyone thought was dead.

I first saw him in fact in the huge queue at the border. I recognised his car and his registration plate, seven kilometres back within Yugoslav territory. But I never thought it would be him.

He was wearing a hat, and had shaved his beard Of course, he was still officially dead, so obviously he was terrified, and wanted to hide. There were a lot of rumours about Serbian agents and no one felt safe until they got through the border.

When I finally recognised him I went crazy. I wanted to jump and kiss him. But the look from his eyes was clear: you didn't see me.

Many other Albanians, people smarter than me, saw him, too. But they didn't acknowledge him at all. They just only needed to see him, to know: "Baton is alive."

For me, I felt as if I was dreaming. As if I wouldn't believe it until I could touch him. The next day, when we finally met again, we just cried and cried. I screamed at him that he had cost five years of my life. He just smiled.

And just below this sense of carnival, people really do cry in Pristina. I was amazed, especially with the men. Crying and crying, from everything they have been through.

For we are still in shock. We are too proud to admit that we are refugees. People are using new expressions, like "deportees". Anything to avoid admitting what has really happened.

In many of the cafes, people are seriously talking about how they will be back in their homes within two weeks. They believe that NATO will continue and win the war, and they will then be able to go back. They are even impatient.

But really all they have is this hope-for me, I'm afraid, a too hopeful hope, a dream. They want these two weeks to be something temporary, itself a dream. They want to pretend that it didn't happen and that it can all be reversed. Even though we have no organisation anymore. Even though many are dead. Even though we are, in fact, here in Macedonia.

To remember, it's enough just to spend half an hour back at the border. To see the huge numbers of refugees trapped there and waiting in the cold, you feel sick. And when you actually sit with people at the cafes and talk to them, the stories are all the same: the policemen, the expulsions, the trains.

Others have even tried to call home. I spoke to seven or eight friends who rang up their houses. Again, always the same. Someone answers in Serbian. They ask, "Is this the house of family so-and-so." The reply is clear: "I don't know whose it was before, but it's mine now."

So despite the atmosphere in the streets, something is wrong. Something doesn't fit. We know what it is. But we don't want to think about it.

Gjeraqina Tuhina is a correspondent for IWPR.

Macedonia, Kosovo
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