The lucky ones

At a refugee camp in Macedonia, women and children tell of the horrible price of freedom.

Published April 13, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

In the rugged green and charcoal mountains that make up the border between Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania, a circle of five
men is gathered outside a tent, listening to the afternoon
Albanian-language Deutsche Welle news broadcast on a short-wave
radio. It is a familiar scene, much like one common at cafes throughout the Kosovo capital of Pristina just a few months ago. But these men are among the 3,000 newly arrived Kosovar refugees at a makeshift camp in Macedonia. And right now, they are so hungry for news, they seem almost oblivious to the people who are washing clothes, playing, reading and sleeping around them.

One tent over is a another familiar scene: A group of women sit in a circle, talking, holding
babies and tending the children who run in and out between them. Among the group, a pretty woman named Hanifeh Istrefaj, who looks
to be in her mid-30s, cuddles a 10-month-old baby girl in red
pajamas with booties and cat and flower appliques, letting the children take turns holding her. Handed comfortably from one adoring child to
another, the baby, Blerina, looks content, supremely
indifferent to her family's harrowing journey from Pristina two weeks ago.

This Neprosteno camp is one of five that NATO troops set up in Macedonia for Kosovo refugees, who number more than 122,000 -- about a third the number in the camps in neighboring Albania. All in all, international officials estimate that some 500,000 of Kosovo's 2 million residents are refugees and an additional 400,000 are displaced from their homes but still trapped in the Kosovo mountains and woods. This camp has been open only a week, but already its new inhabitants have
started to re-create the human patterns and routines that make life
bearable and familiar -- collecting
firewood and bottled water, cleaning, listening to the news, gossiping.

"It helps a lot," says Hanifeh, referring to the group of women
talking together. "We did not know each other before, but now we have a lot
in common."

Hanifeh and her family are among the lucky ones. Like most of the refugees here, they came from Pristina, where by and large the Serbian police spared the lives of those who were willing to leave the country. Here there is not the striking absence of men of the Albanian camps, where up to 100,000 fighting age men are missing from their families, many presumably killed. And although the refugees here are essentially prisoners, the camp itself is relatively comfortable. There is electricity, outhouses and a few tents set up with showers, as well as a German-run hospital. Every day, German NATO troops bring firewood for the residents.

Yet even as these refugees try to create a semblance of a normal life for themselves and their children, women like Hanifeh are quickly overcome with
tears recalling the harrowing journey that brought them here. Although just 10 miles from their homeland, many describe leaving family members behind to an uncertain fate and talk of husbands so consumed with helplessness over their inability to protect their families that they became sick -- usually describing the symptoms of nervous breakdown. In fact, it is common to see men weeping openly here -- an extremely unusual sight in a culture where the males are usually stubbornly reserved about showing emotion.

"He took it very seriously, the decision about leaving Kosovo," Hanifeh
says, explaining what led to her husband's illness. "He was all the time
listening to the news, trying to sort out what's going to happen. I didn't
have time for that because I was taking care of the children. But he didn't
sleep for two weeks, worrying about the kids."

After the police came to their house in the Dragodan neighborhood of
Pristina and told them they had to leave, the Istrefajs stayed with
relatives for a couple days in another neighborhood until the police also expelled them from there. Then they headed to the makeshift train station to be deported, where
Hanifeh remembers mass panic and pandemonium.

"I don't have words to describe it," she says. "People were crying, families were
divided. Some people were injured, most were robbed. That night I saw two
women give birth -- the police were going around the crowd asking for scissors
and other things that they needed. They found a nurse in the crowd to help. One woman
got on the train with her newborn, the other went to a hospital."

Once they got on the overpacked train, Hanifeh's husband fainted. "A
doctor came and gave him some pills and he came back to himself for a short
time," she recalls. But when the family finally reached Macedonia and was herded into a squalid, makeshift camp with 50,000 refugees, he broke down. For four days the refugees were kept in the rain in a field with no tents, no running water and little food. "All the time I was
crying, afraid we were going to die," Hanifeh shudders. "When my husband
got sick, I was left all alone to take care of the baby and the two other
children." When they finally were allowed to leave the camp as a family, she says, he regained hope and was able to pull himself together.

Not all families here were so fortunate. Some made it to the border together only to have to split up in order to see that at least some members got to safety. A woman named Miradija sits down to the conversation with her 16-year-old daughter, Burbuqa, a girl with long dark hair and a sweet smile. For a while, she and her daughter say, their family managed to stay in Pristina in the home of a man who was shot by Serbian police because he refused to leave. Then they left for Macedonia but were separated at the border while waiting with tens of thousands of other refugees in the rain.

As Miradija describes it, the processing of new arrivals to Macedonia was extremely slow, and the refugees who were allowed through were primarily those so sick that they passed out and needed to be carried across the border for medical care. "My
daughter got sick from being outside wet two nights," she says, gesturing to Burbuqa. "She
fainted. So my two sons and I grabbed her and went across the border. My
husband was left with my other daughter and his mother." Burbuqa recovered, but during that four-day period, 40 others died on the border.

Miradija's story is typical of those of thousands of refugees. She has no idea where her husband and daughter are now, or how they are
going to be reunited. The Macedonian police are not allowing people to
leave the camps, not even to buy soap or shampoo in the nearby town of Tetova. There are no telephones in the camp, and the Red Cross has yet to develop a system so
families can locate each other.

Away from the group, another woman sits separately with her three young daughters, as if associating with the other women might mean surrendering to an indefinite future in the camp. Her 7-year-old daughter, Iliriana, who is dressed brightly in a yellow shirt and blue leggings, tells me why her father is not with them. "We were driving out of Kosovo, but the police told us to give up the car, so we had to go on foot. He got sick," she says, and now he is in the hospital in Tetova.

Although her children look well scrubbed, Iliriana's mother complains that she cannot get out of the camp to buy soap for them. But it appears that her real obsession is getting out of the camp. She asks if a journalist can sneak her family out past the Macedonian police guards so that they can get to the home of a distant cousin in the country. Asked whether she will try to take her husband with them, she says that she believes he is "in bad health and won't be able to manage."

Paula Silverman, a pediatrician with Mercy Corps International who is here doing a medical assessment, says that the children in the camp appear to be much more resilient than their parents, and that most of her patients have been adults who are dehydrated or in shock. But the toll on some of the children here is clear. A woman named Myrvete, dressed in a heavy blond fisherman's vest, was deported by train from Pristina with her four children. While she talks with the group, her youngest, a dark-haired 6-year-old boy, lays with his head in her lap. He has become clingy and insecure, she explains: "He won't sleep alone. All night, he chokes me, clinging to me." Another child, one of her 11-year-old twin daughters, has had nightmares. Last night, the girl tells me, she dreamed that her family went back to their house in Pristina, but the police were there and forced them to leave.

Like their parents, the children cling to what they can. A 7-year-old girl, Edona, whose long golden hair is pulled back, tells me that she and her 6-year-old brother, Arbon, are here with their father and grandmother. They have another brother, Edona tells me, a 1-year-old who is physically handicapped. The Macedonian police allowed him to cross the border with their mother, but held Edona and Arbon behind.

Edona shows me her Barbie doll and her brother's shiny truck. "I did not manage to get all my things," she says.

A young man, Bekim Llalloshi, has only his cousin here -- they were separated from his mother, father, brother and sister once they reached Macedonia and were put on buses to different camps. Bekim sits in front of his tent neatly dressed in a sweater and khaki pants, reading an English-language book left behind by a journalist. He seems amazingly calm given the uncertainty of his life -- but he says that reading and working are what keep him calm. Perhaps it is these things, or his youth, that have also instilled him with a surprising sense of optimism. Surveying the camp, the 24-year-old architecture student seems to see what it could become. "The kids could use a playground here," he says, "and a theater."

By Laura Rozen

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

MORE FROM Laura Rozen

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