In The Wrong Place

This is not a good time to be Albanian in Belgrade. Beatings are followed by the question: "Why don't you go to Albania?" Many have fled.

In The Wrong Place

This is not a good time to be Albanian in Belgrade. Beatings are followed by the question: "Why don't you go to Albania?" Many have fled.

J.R. was born 28 years ago in Belgrade. He worked for 11 years as an auto-mechanic in a big industrial plant in Rakovica, the working-class quarter of Belgrade. His is also Albanian.

Three months ago five unknown bandits walked into the manufacturing hall. They pulled J.R. out into the courtyard in front of his colleagues and beat him. They broke his arm, his leg and one rib, shouting: "Move to Albania. What are you waiting here for?"

When J.R. complained to his boss, he was met with a shrug of the shoulders. "That's nothing," said his boss. "Why are you complaining?"

Then when the NATO bombing began, J.R. began to receive threatening telephone calls in the middle of the night.

So on March 31, he left his flat, his car and all his other possessions, and came to Sarajevo together with his wife and child.

Now he lives in a big refugee camp in the vicinity of Sarajevo that happens to bear the same name, Rakovica. They share a tent with 50 other people, his few belongings kept under his bed. His wife cooks lunch on a small wood stove in front of the tent; his child is coughing.

J.R. is only one of 300 Albanians from Belgrade in the camp. It also accommodates some 1,600 refugees who have come from Kosovo and Sandzak since the beginning of the bombing.

But the total number of "Belgrade" Albanians who have fled to Bosnia is certainly much higher. Many more have settled with friends or families, and therefore are not on the official register. Before the war, estimates for the number of Albanians in Belgrade ranged as high as 100,000. Albanians in the refugee camps in Bosnia claim that now very few remain.

The plight of Albanians from Belgrade has passed almost unnoticed due to the tragic fates of those Albanians expelled from Kosovo. Mostly bakers from the area of Dragas in Kosovo, they lived in a relatively compact community. Others sold goods at the market, or worked as street cleaners or garbage collectors. In recent years, life was never easy for them. But their presence was tolerated while the regime waged campaigns against Slovenes, Croats or Muslims--depending on the wars it was fighting at the time.

Since March 1998, however, and the beginning of the war in Kosovo, things took a turn for the worse. Threats on the streets, at the workplace and on the phone increased. Albanians' shops were robbed and damaged. With the bombing campaign, this only increased.

"What are you waiting for here?" a menacing voice on the telephone asked the 30-year-old Albanian factory worker every night. "We will slit your throat, so we can have your flat. Why don't you go to Albania?" He is now in the Rakovica camp, with his wife and four children. "I left everything I had. I fled for my life," he says.

A.G., 46, is a father of four. He worked for 26 years in the Milling Baking Industry, a state bakery in Belgrade. Ever since the bombing started his colleagues became aggressive.

"They were telling me at work to chose a stove where I wish to be baked. I could no longer take it. I had a flat in Belgrade, but I left everything and set out for Bosnia," he says.

Even those who had managed to open their own local bakeries and become well-liked in their neighbourhoods were not spared.

A group of unknown bandits broke into a well-known bakery owned by Uka Cocaj, located in the Merkator shopping centre in New Belgrade. He and his workers were beaten up and his bakery demolished. He, too, is now a refugee in Sarajevo. The same happened in Zemun, a part of Belgrade where the Radicals of Vojislav Seselj hold power. This time, the unknown bandits also set the owner's car on fire.

Two days after the bombing started, on the Sarajevo Street in central Belgrade, 14 shops owned by Albanians were demolished. So was an Albanian-owned sweet shop in Belgrade's central Slavija Square. The owner of one private shop, who says he spent 30 years in Belgrade, found an inscription written on his shop door one morning, with the derogatory name Serbs use for Albanians: "Death to Shiptars!"

Others found the doors of their homes or their mailboxes marked in red. As the fear increased Albanians stopped speaking Albanian in public.

Some Albanians left Belgrade because their families living in Kosovo were expelled, either to Macedonia or Albania. The men of the older generation worked in the Yugoslav capital and saved money to send it their families. A 60-year-old Albanian, who worked for 39 years for the municipal services, said he heard that his village near Dragas was burnt, and that all local families were expelled.

"Since then I don't know where my family is," he says. "Who would I now send money to? If they no longer live here, then my place is not in Serbia either. " He came to Rakovica in hopes of finding his family.

Many of the Albanians from Belgrade had problems even after leaving the city, at the border between Yugoslavia and Republika Srpska. A.G. says that five other Albanians were on the bus with him. It was April 3, and they reached the border-crossing near Zvornik at 5.30 p.m. The Serbian police collected documents only from Albanians.

"They took the men one by one into a room. I was beaten by four policemen, punching me in the head and kicking me in the kidneys," he says.

Another man testifies that he was beaten at the same border crossing on April 4 together with 15 other Albanians.

"They forced one man to kiss a picture of Slobodan Milosevic. They broke the forehead of an old man. People are still recovering from that beating," he says. On some occasions, the police destroyed the Albanians' documents.

The Albanians from Belgrade, like those who arrived from Kosovo via Montenegro, live in uncertainty in the Rakovica refugee camp. They had hoped that they would find the doors of Western embassies open, and could leave the region. But they are learning that refugees are not welcome. They now realise that they have only joined the thousands of Bosniaks (Muslims) who flooded Sarajevo and Tuzla after being expelled from their homes during the war in 1992-93, and who are still waiting to return.

Gordana Igric is an independent journalist from Belgrade.

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