The cruelty is unimaginable

Macedonia cracks down on Kosovar refugees to force other nations to pitch in.

Published April 5, 1999 9:00PM (EDT)

Sedija Namari, emaciated, her face and hands coated with a thin layer of dirt that makes her look tan, her cropped blond hair falling limp around her hollowed-out face, looks almost too exhausted to weep. But like everyone else who spends time at this makeshift border camp of 50,000 Kosovar Albanians, she suddenly finds herself crying, into the arms of Urima Abdyli, her neighbor from Pristina, and now a volunteer with a local Albanian humanitarian organization, El Hilal.

Urima herself only arrived two weeks ago, a day before the NATO bombing began and the Serbs began to systematically expel ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Patting her friend's head, Urima explains that Sedija had heard while still in Kosovo that her father had been killed. Now her friends were telling her that he is alive, and in Tetovo, in northwestern Macedonia.

"He's alive, but she doesn't believe us," says Urima. She's 27, and in what seems a former life a million years ago, she was a dental student in Pristina. She borrows a journalist's mobile phone and puts Sedija on the phone with her father.

Urima and I sneak Sedija and another refugee woman into the taxi we've taken to the border. Urima already has 11 people living in her apartment with her parents and brother, but she has nowhere else to put Sedija, who is coughing and feverish, her eyes closed, head sunk onto the back seat. At a checkpoint Macedonian police try to beat the taxi driver and Urima for transporting refugees. The policeman snatches my NATO press credentials from my hand and is screaming so furiously I can't understand what he is saying. Finally he throws us back in the car and we rush toward the city with our contraband refugees in tow.

Sedija continues to look sunk in stunned exhaustion. It is the look of so many people in the camp, and of their family members anxiously searching for them, first on the border and then in the refugee organizations around the city trying to find accommodations for people. Weeks ago these refugees were people -- doctors, dentists, students, professors, political activists, journalists. Now they seem like pawns: reduced, helpless, trying to survive. And now, the Macedonian police are trying to keep the 50,000 new Kosovar Albanian arrivals hostage on the border. The well-armed police and military who prevent them from leaving the border area are increasingly rough and hostile with them, sometimes beating them. They're just as rough and hostile with the foreign reporters and aid workers trying to provide medical assistance to the mass of people abandoned in this valley next to the border, near the train tracks and river, where their forced expulsion from Kosovo ended.

Macedonia, a poor country of only 2 million people, has taken in more than 100,000 Kosovar refugees since NATO started bombing 11 days ago. Now Skopje simply has put its foot down, and the 50,000 people caught in the cold and rain and mud and filth after a harrowing forced expulsion from Kosovo and a several-day wait on the Serbian side of the border cross into Macedonia only to face a different kind of hell. In order to force other countries to help share the burden, the Macedonians even refused to allow the 12,000 NATO peace-keeping troops here to provide the 50,000 new arrivals with tents.

The cruelty is unimaginable: After being forced at gunpoint to board trains in Kosovo to flee for their lives, many Kosovars are dying here in a makeshift Macedonian border camp, not for any lack of food or water or medical personnel in the area, but because the Macedonians need a visible human catastrophe to make other countries start to pitch in. Kosovars bury their dead by the river where they are forced to wait. Marwan, a young doctor from Pristina volunteering at El Hilal, tells me two children died in his arms in the camps on Friday night alone. Others speak of refugees fighting over food. It is unspeakably awful to witness the needless deaths and suffering of people who by no fault of their own have fallen on the mercy of this government. No one who has seen it has been able to sleep in days.

By Sunday night, it appears the ploy may have worked. At nightfall comes news that Turkey, Germany, Norway, the United States and Canada had agreed to temporarily take in several thousand of the Kosovo refugees in Macedonia, and would be sending planes soon to airlift them out. As we drive away from the madness, we see NATO cargo planes airlifting supplies in the direction of the refugees. NATO is reported to be able to build a tent camp to house several thousand in just three hours.

Every day Urima calls me to take her to the border. The Macedonian police won't let the non-Western passport holders go to the area. She walks up and down the long stretch of hill that overlooks the mass of refugees, scanning for friends, crying, thinking she recognizes people, trying to remember her new telephone number. Although she is a medical student and a volunteer with an accredited humanitarian organization, the Macedonian police hold her back from going down to see the refugees with the broad side of their automatic weapons. One cocks his gun to drive home the point.

Waiting in a crowd of relatives being held back from their newly arrived family members, I ask one of the Macedonian policeman: Doesn't he feel bad forcing babies and old people to die because he won't allow them to get out and get medical help.

"Of course. I have feelings. I have a family," he says, resting his gun, strapped over his shoulders, across his chest. "But what can I do? It's our job."

Even when you are not on the border witnessing the misery of the refugees, the Kosovo refugees haunt Macedonia.

At a grocery store in the town center, whole families are in the soap aisle, selecting toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, soap. They came with nothing except whatever cash they haven't been robbed of.

At dinner Friday night at a pub in Skopje called Pivnica, I see two Kosovar friends, journalist Eugen Saracini and his wife, a doctor, standing like ghosts in the doorway. They are alarmingly pale, and unusually for them both, they are not smiling.

I can't stop hugging them. Eugen says he spent three days on the border, trying to get his sister, a well-known journalist with Voice of America, out to safety.

Everyone is joyless.

In my hotel, young Kosovar Albanians haunt the lobby, the coffee bar, preoccupied. One young man, an ethnic Turkish Kosovar, has a father still in Pristina, a mother and brother in Turkey and an expired Yugoslav passport that keeps him trapped in the no man's land of the hotel. He too is ghostly white, and clearly desperate. He sits tensely with the Turkish journalists who have come to cover the conflict, and who talk amiably around him to mask his silent anxiety.

The family I stay with when I'm in Pristina is also on the border, with the tens of thousands of refugees. Every day I think I will find them among the crowd and take them out of there, but I don't see them.

On Friday I run into Artan, a 24-year-old Kosovar friend whom the foreign diplomats are fighting over to work for them, at the border.

"I am waiting for my mother and brother," he says, uncharacteristically grim. "I am not even sure they have even left Pristina. But the whole rest of our neighborhood is here and they tell me there is nobody left there. But I can't find them."

"What do you think, are we going to have a war here?" my taxi driver, a Muslim Macedonian named Jani asks me on Saturday.

"No," I answer. "NATO is here, there won't be a war."

"No, we are going to have a war here," he says, shaking his head. "There are just too many refugees. It's going to cause problems. It's not good."

Before the influx of ethnic Albanian refugees driven from their homes in Kosovo, Macedonia enjoyed a fragile peace between its Macedonian Slav majority and its ethnic Albanian one-third minority. But now many Macedonians fear the influx of 100,000 refugees will shift the ethnic balance and lead to the ethnic Albanian Macedonians demanding independence. The Macedonian Albanians insist they do not want independence. But the Macedonians' fear of the Albanians, that they might cause the breakup of the country, is the most dominant political characteristic of Macedonia right now.

Suddenly, it seems that everyone I talk to in Macedonia thinks there will be a war here. It changes the city, makes it feel more dangerous. Last March in Pristina, one could sense after the first 53 people were killed that it was not going to be a one-time affair. It would be a war. In Macedonia, it is still not clear to me that the ingredients that lead to tensions escalating into a conflict are there. But the increasing perception among residents that it could disturbs me.

On Saturday night I go to party in a neighborhood of Skopje that overlooks all of the city. A friend from New York calls me there, quizzing me anxiously about who I know that came over the border alive. Blerim Shala, the editor of Zeri magazine, is alive, in Gostivar, Macedonia. The sister of Veton Surroi, the publisher of Koha Ditore, was seen on TV in Macedonia; she's alive. Baton Hoxhiu, the editor of Koha Ditore rumored last week to be killed, crossed the border Sunday morning. Rexhep Qosja, a Kosovar politician who was at the Rambouillet negotiations, came out alive. Eugen Saracini, a journalist for Deutsch Welle I met at the pub: alive. Aferdita Kelmendi, journalist for Voice of America, alive. As we share information, I look over the balcony past the lights of the city, to the border where the refugees are, to the darkness beyond that is Kosovo, and wonder if any of us will ever return there.

By Laura Rozen

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

MORE FROM Laura Rozen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------