Traumatized refugees build a camp metropolis

As NATO troops go back to war, residents develop their own civilization.


Mark Schapiro
May 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

At least 20,000 more Kosovar Albanian refugees have crossed into Macedonia in the past three days, straining the capacity of NATO and international humanitarian groups to supervise a sprawling new camp civilization. Over the weekend, for instance, at the Cigrane refugee camp, the last of the German NATO soldiers who built the comparatively well-organized settlement finally left it behind, withdrawing to a military base in Macedonia, where their commander says "we will prepare for what we came here to do: Go into Kosovo."

Whatever turn the war takes -- toward a peaceful solution, or a ground war -- NATO troops are leaving camp administration and preparing to enter Kosovo, whether as peacekeepers or combat soldiers. At camps like Cigrane, that will leave a vacuum -- to be filled by the some 20 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the camp, and by the refugees themselves. In their first foray outside Germany since the end of World War II, the Germans did a widely admired job of helping build a settlement over the past several weeks for some 31,000 people, with space for another 6,800. Orderly lines of tents march up the hillside, water pipes have been laid in 2-foot-deep trenches by husky Germans in camouflage pants and tank tops, pausing from their digging to bounce balloons and kick soccer balls with the burgeoning population of children.

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The camp the Germans left behind more and more resembles a small municipality, albeit of canvas tents and dirt pathways. New refugees are brought in by the busload and are sent to fill up another letter in this sprawling metropolis in the making, where row after row of tent sections are named alphabetically. Last week they occupied A through L; the weekend's influx no doubt filled M and perhaps beyond. "It's like a small city here," says Nora Kelmendi, 26, a Kosovar Albanian who worked for CARE in Pristina and is now in charge of handling food distribution for sections G through L, while residing with a host family in nearby Gostivar.

How to run this burgeoning metropolis? Refugees are rapidly developing their own system of governance, laying the groundwork for a long haul here in the foothills of the Sar Mountains, where the snow capped peaks provide a dazzling contrast in the distance. Last week, a call was put out for teachers for a UNICEF-sponsored school at the camp. More than a dozen responded. All refused payment. A call for sign artists resulted in numerous artists offering their services; 30 professional firemen have been identified to form a volunteer fire corps.

Most notably, the Cigrane camp is evolving into a mini-democracy. According to a system devised by CARE Australia, which has primary responsibility for running the logistics of the camp, each line of tents elects a leader to represent them; in turn, those leaders elect an individual to represent the entire tent section. "It's amazing how natural leaders come out of the pack," comments Michael Emory of CARE Australia. Most are men, in their 40s, with what Emory calls demonstrated leadership abilities in their communities back home: there's a policeman, a jurist, an official of the former Yugoslav government -- and a boxer.

Bajram Hashani, 46, once one of former Yugoslavia's foremost boxing champions, is now, along with his wife, sister and two children, the inhabitant of tent number A-18/9. He is, in the faint outlines of political organization taking shape in the Cigrane camp, a "tent group leader" -- in street lexicon, a ward captain. His domain is the A section -- 146 tents, all stenciled in white lettering, "Gift of the United States of America" -- in which reside some 4,860 people. Hashani knows his constituents like a good ward captain: "I have 23 doctors, 26 engineers, and a lot of young students," he says.

At the top of the chain of command in the camp are CARE and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which work with some 20 NGOs in the camp dispensing food, assisting with housing and medical care (Medecins San Frontiere and Pharmaciens Sans Frontier, and a German and Norwegian military hospital) and facilitating family reunions (the International Committee of the Red Cross and International Organization of Migration). The German troops acted like in-house security services, logistical coordinators and construction workers -- roles which will be taken over by the refugees themselves and the NGOs.

One of the reasons that Hashani was selected to this post was his stature as one of Yugoslavia's leading boxers. He was a member of the country's national team and its top welterweight from 1968, when he was 14, to 1980. His face, unshaven now for several days, is grizzled, and his once-stocky frame is considerably slimmed down after more than three weeks in the camp. His shoulders are rigid, a professional inheritance, but strong. He has short black hair, specked with gray, and a poorly healed scar on his neck also inherited from the ring.

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It's been 13 years since Hashani fought professionally in the ring. He still carries the authority of a man accustomed to being the strongest in the room, only now it comes from a calm, forceful and generous spirit, a reassuring quality in the turmoil and tragedy of the camp. He invites me to sit on a stack of blankets in the tent he shares with his sister, his wife and two children. The tent is bare except for a plastic bottle of water hanging from the cross-posts, a couple of stuffed animals for his kids, and a small butane burner in the corner, where his sister Sofia brews up some tea. He offers me a cigarette -- though cigarettes are one of the most valuable commodities in the camp, it is impossible to offer anyone here a smoke before they dig in their pocket and offer one of their own.

Hashani flips through a slim leather wallet containing photos of himself in the ring. In one, with a full head of hair and short black moustache, he is a dead ringer for Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky." Another photo shows him in a double-breasted white suit, devilishly handsome, his arm around a buxom young woman, looking like he could fit into a Don King entourage. That photo was taken in 1979, in Cleveland, where Hashani was sent by the then-Yugoslav government to a sports school (he does not remember the name) to become a boxing teacher and referee. During his two-year stay in the U.S., where he picked up a rough working knowledge of English, he fought on the welterweight circuit around Cleveland and Detroit. He also had a son, who still lives in Cleveland. (They have spoken once by cell phone since Hashani and his family's arrival at the camp). Returning to Yugoslavia, Hashani became a referee and ran a boxing school in Pristina.

But in 1987, after the death of the country's longtime leader Josef Tito (who is revered by many Kosovars for the autonomy he granted the province, and his attempt to hold together a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia), Hashani was kicked out of the Yugoslav Boxing Federation, which was conducting an early ethnic cleansing of its ranks. Like many other ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, he was blocked from holding an official or professional position, and got a job working at an electric power plant. Hashani's acclaim throughout the former Yugoslavia, however, continues. Several Macedonians in Skopje told me about having seen excerpts from a famous fight between Hashani and Tadia Kacar, another Yugoslav champ, on Macedonian television before the war.

Now, at 8:30 every morning, Hashani arrives at Rubb Hall, a vast hangar that is the repository for food and other supplies. Here, he delivers a daily report on the total number of refugees in his line of tents -- whether there have been any new arrivals or departures from the previous day. He is in charge of distributing loaves of bread, tomatoes, onions and other foodstuffs, as well as the piles of blankets and clothing that fill the CARE tent in the center of the camp, and making sure that every tent receives a copy of Fakti, the Albanian language newspaper produced in nearby Tetova that is distributed daily. He also takes requests -- for more food and blankets -- and, lately, complaints: "They say the music is too loud. " Innovative new radios distributed in the camp don't require batteries; they're powered by a crank, like an old prop plane. And now the sounds of pop and traditional Albanian music emanating from the tents clash throughout the camp.

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Last week, Hashani assembled a 50-person volunteer security force to deal with a new problem: residents from nearby towns who smuggle themselves into the camp and claim they are residents in order to receive the regular food allocations to sell on the black market.

Most of the new residents of the Cigrane camp assume that this is only a temporary transit station. According to interviews conducted by humanitarian officials, they nurture the belief that they will be returning to Kosovo, or relocating to one of the countries that have offered temporary refuge. But the signs of a longer stay ahead are abundant. Girls bathe donated Barbie dolls in basins; a young woman, shrouded in a plastic tarp, is having her hair cut while sitting on an upturned bucket. A rope hung between two posts serves as a volleyball court for clusters of teenagers. Improvised kiosks have been set up in the camp by ethnic Albanians from this region of northwest Macedonia, selling fresh vegetables, rubber sandals, refrigerated Coca-Cola and Sprite, toy balls and detergent.

Just down the hill from the camp is the town of Cigrane itself, and the refugees, able to pass freely past the Macedonian police guards at the battered fence perimeter, fill the cafes of the town's single dusty street. A local entrepreneur has even installed a full-blown bumper-car ride -- 20 dinars (about 30 cents) a ride -- alongside the dirt road leading into the camp, packed in the daylight hours with kids from the town and the camp. (Many of the refugees are availing themselves of the seemingly efficient system by which relatives in the U.S. and Europe can wire money to the local post office.)

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Like many refugees, Hashani, who left Kosovo on April 28, had a horrific flight from Pristina. Last Friday, International Hague Tribunal investigators looking into charges of war crimes and genocide by Yugoslav forces interviewed him. Barefoot, sipping tea in his tent, he related to me what he told "the man from the Hague":

Shortly after the bombing campaign began, Hashani's 3-year-old son, Mohammed, came home crying after seeing two paramilitary police beating an ethnic Albanian woman attempting to buy bread at a local shop. The police and the paramilitaries were occupying the city block by block. It was no longer possible, he says, to buy food; ethnic Albanian shops were taken over by Serbs, and Serb shopkeepers refused to sell to Albanians (a comment I heard repeated by many refugees from Pristina). When Hashani himself tried to buy bread along with a long line of other ethnic Albanians, a hand grenade was thrown at the crowd. "It didn't go off. It was pure luck. The man forgot to pull the clip," Hashani says.

He tried to leave the city with his father, wife, sister and sons, but en route to the train station, he says, he was stopped by the paramilitaries. "They pulled me out of the car and started beating me." His storied fists, he says, were useless: "You cannot compete with fists against a weapon." Hasheni's son, Mohammed, started screaming, "Don't touch my father!" The paramilitary knocked Mohammed unconscious, and broke three of Hashani's father's ribs. They took all his wife's jewelry, and 2,000 deutsche marks he carried inside his boots.

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Hashani knew a Serbian boxer in a paramilitary unit who said he could secure the family's safety -- for 5,000 DM. "I said, 'I don't have the money.' He said, 'You have half an hour to find it'. I came back with 600 DM. He put it in his shirt pocket, and said, 'You are secure; nobody will get hurt.'"

On April 28, Hashani called an elderly Serbian friend to drive him and his family to the train station at Kosovo Polje. "He is a courageous man, a friend," recalls Hashani. At the train station, the family was greeted by a paramilitary checkpoint. "They were taking the young men out of the cars. They told us not to look behind us. Nobody saw them again."

On the train, every door was locked. Before reaching the Macedonian border, the train was stopped, once. Paramilitary groups entered, and took 28 men, ages 18 to 30, off the train. The passengers watched as they were driven off.

Now, Hashani deals with daily life in a community where there are thousands of similar stories. His small son's traumatic experiences in Kosovo have left their imprint. Mohammed sits placidly in his father's lap, his eyes open, not registering any presence but his father's, during our interview in the family's tent. "He doesn't speak anymore," Hashani says, stroking the boy's hair. It's an experience that is common, he says, among those in his tent group and elsewhere at Cigrane. "We have people who saw their sons and daughters being killed. They are driven out of their minds. Very aggressive, out of control at one moment, then they stop and apologize. Sometimes, they don't recognize their friends or family."

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Shortly after our talk, I revisited Cigrane as busloads of new refugees were being driven into the camp in red buses from the frontier at Blace. They poured off the buses, at times into the arms of tearful relatives waiting on the embankment along the dirt road into the camp. Once settled, they will rapidly be integrated into the evolving political organization of the camp.

I found Hashani halfway up the sloping hill, in the midst of the swirl of refugees, helping guide them to new tents, distributing the boxes of rations, trying to orient people to their new life inside of canvas. The sun was setting; the clouds, glowing a pale red, hummed gracefully over the nearby mountaintops. The fading light was soothing -- until one looked down at the camp below.

Hashani didn't have much time to talk. He surveyed the scene for a moment, and uttered just a few words before resuming his work. "It's a catastrophe," he said.


Mark Schapiro

Mark Schapiro is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, Harper's Bazaar and the Utne Reader.

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