Refugees protest treatment by Macedonians

Kosovar Albanians are clashing with police as refugee camps reach their saturation point.

Published May 12, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

Aurvasi Patel was caught in an
unenviable position. In front of her, she faced an agitated crowd of
hundreds of Kosovar Albanians, angry at the alleged mistreatment at the
hands of camp police. Behind her, a phalanx of beefy Macedonian policemen,
arms folded, stood shoulder-to-shoulder in defense of their headquarters.

Intermittently, the crowd shouted "NAH-TO, NAH-TO," calling for the return
of the international military alliance that constructed and first ran the
camp. The NATO soldiers are viewed as heroes by the refugees here -- both as
their military supporters in Kosovo and as a benevolent presence as camp

New tensions between Kosovar Albanian refugees and Macedonian police are on the rise as refugee camps reach their saturation point. The stand-off at Brazda Monday showed the Kosovo conflict in microcosm, highlighting the ethnic tension in
Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians comprise nearly one-quarter of the population, according to government figures. The recent flood of refugees has greatly increased that figure, while the government has continued to allow refugees to pour into their country. Finally last Wednesday, the Macedonian government sealed the border.

This has only made the situation worse at Brazda. As Brazda's camp manager, defusing the conflict fell on Patel's shoulders. She is a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees field officer, and Monday she served as Brazda's chief arbitrator, forced to
mediate between the camp's occupants and its police force.

The crowd gathered at the police headquarters had been galvanized by an incident a few
minutes earlier. A man identified only as Gashi, a 44-year-old refugee, had
been apprehended by camp police. According to the police, he had been
pulled from under the camp's fence, caught trying to escape. Gashi claimed
he was only trying to get a leather jacket. He said an officer had
smashed his head while taking him into custody. The police said he had resisted arrest, but denied any abuse.

Working with an interpreter and colleagues from UNHCR and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Patel
formulated a plan. She would convene a meeting of representatives from the
refugee community with a delegation from the police. Through an
interpreter, who spoke with the aid of a megaphone, she announced the plan to the crowd.

Patel said she hoped the hot temperature would help disperse the crowd. With the initial fervor of the demonstration dying down, she took a deep breath and looked around. "These people have been here a long time and they are venting their frustration,"
she said.

The nerve-fraying job of an UNHCR field officer includes a fair amount of managing ethnic tensions in this de facto city, where each day around 24,000 inhabitants eat, sleep and carry on their daily lives. In this world circumscribed by chain-link and barbed wire, the daily life is monotonous at best.

On Tuesday, Patel said the issue of the beating that sparked the demonstration had been resolved. A delegation of refugees had aired their complaints to the police commander, with Patel on hand to mediate.

But one man, an ethnic Albanian from Skopje who was handing out free
newspapers to the camp's inhabitants, wasn't aware of the meeting between
police and the refugee representatives. Avni Ibrahimi, a 22-year-old
volunteer with a group called "Spike of Goodness," said abuse at the hands of
Macedonian police is commonplace.

For the Kosovar Albanians at Brazda and the other refugee camps, the
Macedonian police are hardly better than the Serbian police who
forced them from their homes. One Kosovar Albanian man at the demonstration
described a litany of police abuses, including police officers illuminating the walls of the plastic
bathrooms with their flashlights when women were inside.

In an effort to placate the government and alleviate stresses caused by the
huge number of refugees, the UNHCR began busing refugees from Macedonia to
Albania. On Monday the first three bus loads of ethnic Albanians left
Brazda, Stankovic and Cegrane camps for Qatrum, in Albania. Though the
number was small, about 150, it was an important symbolic gesture of catering to the wishes of the Macedonian government by the UNHCR. "It was a trial run," said Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesman on hand at the Stankovic camp.

Redmond says he hopes more busses will follow. "These camps are overcrowded and we
have pressure from the Macedonian government to move people out. And
Albania has expressed a willingness to take more," he said Monday.

Redmond said no refugees were obligated to leave a camp in Macedonia for
one in Albania. "It's got to be voluntary. There's no way we're
going to force people," he said. That policy probably accounts for the
scant number shipped out Monday. Many among the 150 who did go to Qatrum
said they had relatives in Albania.

But the longer the Kosovo conflict continues, and as the ethnic Albanians
refugees are confined to camps patrolled by indifferent or even antagonistic
guards, in a country led by a hostile administration, the more likely it
becomes that refugees will elect to take one more journey.

By Rob Mank

Rob Mank is a journalist based in New York. He reported on the Kosovo conflict for Salon News.


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