Shades of Srebrenica

Refugees tell of Serbian soldiers commandeering relief vehicles, echoing the Bosnian slaughter.

Published April 2, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Town by town, village by village, they come. Thursday, it was Pristina's turn, as more than 3,000 residents of the Kosovo capital arrived by train at the Macedonian border and were herded into buses to take up new lives as refugees. Hundreds more snaked up the road in a long queue on the Serbian side of the Macedonian border, their winter coats dots of color in a swarm of humanity once more on the run from the brutality of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Begrudgingly, blue-uniformed Macedonian border guards let them in, treating each arrival to an individual long question-and-answer session at their blue glass-and-plastic border patrol booths, as if the thousands of people fleeing their homes were somehow suspected of some unspecified crime, rather than the victims of one -- genocide.

Relatives of the new arrivals wait for them anxiously a few hundred meters in from the border, and trade information with other newly arrived refugees to locate missing friends and family members. An ethnic Albanian man from Skopje said he currently has 20 Kosovar relatives in his small apartment in the Macedonian capital, and he's prepared, if he has to, to take in more. Like him, hundreds of Macedonian Albanians have opened their modest homes to their refugee relatives, who have no idea whether they will return to Kosovo.

Leka, a man who arrived from Pristina Wednesday, his face gaunt, his eyes watching his two little children playing on top of a hill near the border, scanned the crowd of arrivals from Pristina tensely, searching through the sea of familiar and unfamiliar faces for that of his wife. Macedonian police barked orders at the crowd, some of the women fainting with exhaustion, others crying from unknown traumas, still others anxious to be left alone, to move along from whatever horrors and grief they had left behind.

Leka, in a sweater and jeans, looks and sounds to be from Pristina's well-educated middle-class community of professionals, many of whom have fled the city in recent days. Since the Kosovo conflict began last March, he's worked for a U.S. humanitarian aid organization.

In good English he tells me that he personally saw three people killed on the street the day he left, including one woman more than 70 years old. He says the Serbian police are all wearing black face masks in Kosovo now, adding to the terror that is fueling this exodus. He says he had to pay Serbian police 200 deutsche marks to get out of the country (he has 3,000 more DM in his pants pockets, to help other family members get over the border), and that police confiscated one of his cars.

Leka says that Serbian police broke into a warehouse where humanitarian organizations had been storing food, supplies and vehicles and stole six U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights four-wheel drive vehicles, in which they're now driving around Kosovo, confusing Kosovo Albanians, who think when they see the familiar white UNHCR vehicles that it might be desperately needed international humanitarian relief workers inside, rather than killers. He said he's also seen Serbian police and paramilitaries driving around Pristina in two Children's Aid Direct vehicles.

That story sends chills down the spines of those familiar with the Bosnian war. In July 1995, Bosnian Serbian forces told thousands of people fleeing the fallen U.N. safe haven of Srebrenica that they were Red Cross humanitarian workers. At that beacon of hope, Bosnian Muslim refugees came out of their hiding places in the forests, and subsequently some 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men were slaughtered in the single worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust.

In a voice so low I had to ask him to repeat it, Leka said he knows what he's going to do in his new life as a refugee. "I am going to run guns for the Kosovo Liberation Army." This is a man who's more accustomed to humanitarian aid work than handling weapons, and one who seems to be adeptly minding the children single-handedly while trying to locate his wife. While most of the Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers have come from Kosovo's rural and village populations, particularly from the central Kosovo farming region called Drenica, Leka is urban professional through and through.

But the experience of being helpless to protect one's family in the face of death from Serbian police and paramilitaries seems to have created a resolve in Leka to be prepared to protect his own and support those who are protecting his people. People like Leka say that they ultimately don't trust anybody but the KLA to protect the Kosovars in the future -- not NATO, not the Macedonians, nobody else. He says that NATO has made a mess of the bombing.

Watching the crowd of refugees arriving, day and night, old and young, peasants and city dwellers, all reduced to the same basic human needs -- warmth, water, food and shelter -- one begins to feel witness to something like a natural disaster -- a flood or a hurricane or an earthquake. Human beings seem terribly fragile, fully mortal, when their well-being depends on escaping black-masked thugs with police badges and scary firearms, appealing to the mercy of border guards growing hostile to the constantly arriving people and the generosity of distant relatives. Each family, each stray child, is hoping against hope that his or her whole family makes it out, that those left behind will be reunited with them sometime in the future, that the violence will spare them. All have the look of awareness, gained at some point on the long journey out of Kosovo, that life will never be the same.

Late in the day, Leka's wife finally made it over the border to Macedonia to join her family.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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