In the land of lost children

Jehona speaks in her sleep every night: "Where is my mommy? Where is my daddy?"


Vivienne Walt
May 12, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It was one of those bone-chilling Balkan nights in late March when Xhavit and Fatimre Cecelia quickly gathered some clothing and food and shoved it into a bag. At the last minute, they grabbed a little album with photos of the kids and their house in Pristina, showing its velvet curtains and tiled kitchen.

Neighbors and friends gathered with similar bundles and began moving down the street in a convoy of tractors and cars, an attempt at shielding each other from Serbian police. They headed out of the city, south on the Macedonia road.

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Within minutes, the two Cecelia boys, Agon, 6, and Ardin, 3, who were sitting on the back of a tractor, complained that they were cold. Without hesitating, Xhavit lifted them down, tucked them into the back seat of his friend's car and told the boys he would see them when they reached the Macedonia border.

When I meet Xhavit outside his new home -- Tent D-258 in this vast camp, which is home to 25,000 refugees -- he chokes on his words as he remembers that fateful moment more than one month ago. "They were cold. I just wanted to make them warm," he tells me, dropping his head in agony. He is a parent whose loving intentions might yet prove to be the most calamitous decision of his life.

Agon and Ardin have not been seen since the night the Cecelias left their home. No one knows where they went, although a possible scenario has developed from bits of stories Pristina's exiles have brought with them to the camp. In the chaos during the first few days of NATO bombing against Yugoslavia, tens of thousands of Albanians fled Kosovo in convoys that were blocked by Serbian militants. In the worst cases, some Albanians were executed. But many convoys simply disintegrated in the upheaval, with vehicles scattering in different directions.

Here in Macedonia, literally hundreds of people were lost during one disastrous night in those first few days of the NATO campaign. Macedonian special police, intensely jittery about the huge flood of ethnic Albanians swarming across their border, forced refugees out of the border transit camp at Blace, about 10 miles north of this refugee camp. They shoved refugees onto buses in a chaotic act that shunted immediate family members off to different camps, despite their pleas.

Among them were Jehona Aliu's mother and father and her three siblings. What doomed 5-year-old Jehona was the same quality that has made her a beloved fixture in Stankovic 1: her irrepressible, giggling energy. At the very moment Macedonian police were rounding up the refugees, Jehona had run off to play with other children in the transit camp. When she turned back, her family had vanished. She stood alone and bewildered in the middle of a crowded, unfamiliar mountainside camp.

For an entire day and night, Jehona wandered around the fenced-in transit camp, confused and terrified. Finally, a group of British NATO soldiers realized she was totally lost and took her back to their tent in this refugee camp to care for her. After five days, the soldiers met Xhavit and Fatimre Cecelia, who had begun their devastating search for their two sons. The British soldiers gently suggested that the couple look after Jehona. That was seven weeks ago. Now Tent D-258 has a corner crowded with dolls and a huge Daffy Duck, donated by aid workers and journalists who have come to know the curious hodge-podge family.

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"I've come to love her," says Fatimre. "If she cannot find her parents, I would like to take her with me." The Cecelias are on a list to be evacuated to Norway, where Xhavit's sister lives, but have been unable to tear themselves away from Macedonia, for fear of never finding their children.

When I squat down to ask Jehona what happened the day she lost her parents, she runs off again. Watching her, Fatimre begins to cry silently. "Jehona speaks in her sleep every night," she tells me. "I hear her say: 'Where is my mommy? Where is my daddy?'" So far, there is no answer, although relief organizations suspect they might be elsewhere in Macedonia.

For people like these, one of the few sources of hope is the International Committee for the Red Cross tent near the gate of the Stankovic 1 camp. Refugees arrive at the long desk inside, babbling their stories to the harried staff, convinced that once their details are written down on the standard Red Cross tracing form, their missing loved ones will reappear within days.

But the reality is far more complicated than that. Thousands of Kosovars have all but vanished into villages in Macedonia and Albania, where they have been taken in by local families. Others have already been evacuated from the refugee camps and flown off to Finland, Holland, Germany, the United States and various other countries. Some have probably been killed. In war's inevitable tumult, many more have simply disappeared. Well into the second month of NATO's air attacks, Red Cross officials now say they need to begin preparing people for the bitter fact that their loved ones, who disappeared in a split-second's twist of fate, might not be seen for years -- or perhaps a lifetime.

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"We have 125 people who call our headquarters in Geneva every day, looking for their relatives who disappeared in the Second World War," says Pierre Gauthier, the International Red Cross spokesman in Macedonia. "We have people who have been missing since the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Rwanda, Bosnia."

Finding lost relatives takes time. Only recently have Red Cross forensics experts finally been able to dig up graves in Bosnia to identify many of those on their missing persons lists. On the other end of the scale, people lost during World War II have found their families after 50 years of separation.

For those who are wired, the Internet offers another avenue of hope. In Gostivar, a heavily Albanian town in Macedonia, one Web site -- www.refugjat.org -- compiles information about the Albanian diaspora. In London, an Internet news service called Out There News appealed last month to companies to donate laptop computers to refugee organizations, so that the name of every person arriving at camps like Stankovic can be entered and tracked electronically. In a similar appeal, the U.S. Information Agency recently announced the Kosovar Refugee Internet Assistance Initiative. A joint project between public companies like Gateway and Hewlett-Packard and private establishments like the Markle Foundation, the initiative will donate $500,000 worth of technology to the refugee camps. So far, though, Red Cross staff continue to handwrite the information. One illegible letter could potentially throw a trace way off track.

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Imagine, as a child, arriving in a foreign country alone, surrounded by police, NATO soldiers and thousands of terrified, displaced people. You have lost your home, friends and everything you have known until then. "Children turn up crying, saying they've lost their parents," says Gauthier. "They don't even know how to spell their name. They don't know what village they come from."

Without such details, the tracing can be a miserable process. All over Stankovic 1, homemade signs are tacked to wooden information boards, with pleas like: "Father, if you are in this camp, please come to the Red Cross tent." Every camp has a duplicate list of lost children and relatives, and each night, new names are entered into a computer database. But the task is difficult. Not only are family members in different camps, they may be in different countries.

Until last week, Vedat Bahtiri, 16, assumed his parents would be among those the Red Cross would find in Kosovo. Injured in a hand-grenade attack last month, he was admitted to a hospital in Pristina. Four days later, he fled to Macedonia when Serbian police surrounded the hospital. There, a cousin found him, and one day arrived at Stankovic camp with incredible news: Vedat's parents had called his cousin to say, "If you find my son, tell him we are in Germany."

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In the Kukes refugee camp, in northern Albania, Yaton Miftori, 11, has composed songs about his family life in Kosovo. The images provide stark contrast to the tent he now lives in with his cousins. Miftori fled his village of Klodernica in late April, after hiding out in a basement with his injured father. His mother had been trapped in a nearby village, where she had been attending a funeral before the fighting began. Finally, little Yaton set off without his parents, as Serbian soldiers surrounded the village. "My father could not walk, so he stayed in the basement." So far, the Red Cross has found no trace of either parent, and since he last saw them in Kosovo, Yaton has little chance of seeing them before the war is over.

Indeed, the task of finding missing family members is so huge that the Red Cross, UNICEF, Save the Children and other organizations have joined forces, working from a single database. They also restrict searches to children under 18 and those over 60 -- people known in relief lingo as "vulnerables."

The three missing people Naser Cakolli is seeking don't qualify. One day, I meet him outside the Red Cross tent in Stankovic 2, the camp next-door to this one. Since he is 29 and has lost no children of his own, his case is a low priority, but his story is jolting nonetheless.

Just before NATO began bombing Yugoslavia, his three brothers all joined the Kosovo Liberation Army. Cakolli, as the youngest, was delegated to take their wives out of the ravaged province, to the relative sanctuary of Macedonia. Cakolli himself had a wife who was eight months pregnant.

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By the time they reached the Blace border crossing, Cakolli's wife was feeling weak and ill, and the couple went to a medical tent in the transit camp, telling the three sisters-in-law to stay put. When they left the medical tent and tried to return to the three women, the Macedonian police blocked their path. The couple was immediately pushed onto a bus headed directly to Stankovic 2 camp. Cakolli has not seen or heard of his three sisters-in-law since.

Cakolli has scoured the notice boards around Stankovic 2 every day for weeks. But the names of his sisters are never there. They might, of course, be just a few miles away, in another refugee camp. Or, since the Macedonian government has pressed Western governments to relocate refugees as quickly as possible, they might already have flown to other countries, thousands of miles away.

Loss in war is an age-old story, as intrinsic to battle as killing, it seems. "Finding people is just a long process, and we are at the very beginning," says Gauthier. "Eventually, most people will find each other."

Until then, Cakolli, Jehona, the Cecelias and hundreds of others will have to keep searching.

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Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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