Out of war, into world of uncertainty

As refugees exceed capacity of camps, conditions worsen for many. New

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They shared the agony of watching their homes burned by masked Serbs, they say, and the terror of forced marches out of Kosovo. But as they confront futures as blustery as the icy gales from the nearby Cursed Mountains, the Osmanis and Rexhepis now live in separate worlds.

The six Osmanis are quartered in a clean, well-guarded, Italian-government-run camp of new tents and regular meals outside this crumbling border town. The Rexhepis, 34 in all, share a mud-slathered, tractor-clogged hillside in Kukes with thousands of other squatters. Prey to local thieves, they're crammed inside shelters of plastic sheets, foraging for aid as their children romp amid squalor and the smoke of countless fires.

Like some 80,000 other ethnic Albanian refugees in Kukes, the Rexhepis cannot find room in formal encampments, which have space for only 20,000. To make matters worse for those striving to help them and some 500,000 others in Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania, Europe's worst humanitarian crisis since World War II may be about to deepen.

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United Nations officials say there may be between 400,000 and 800,000 more potential refugees still inside Kosovo. Pursued by Serbian tanks and troops, as many as 100,000 are said to be moving toward Macedonia and another 170,000 toward Montenegro.

How many may end up in Albania is unclear as Yugoslavia has shut the border since April 18 after a five-day influx of some 46,000, according to Daniel Endres of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). What happened to tens of thousands lined up for miles behind them remains unknown.

The Serbs "are pushing on an endgame pretty quickly. There is no doubt that whoever is not on the move in Kosovo will be on the move shortly," says a US official. Moreover, the official says, between 200,000 and 500,000 ethnic Albanian men have been separated from their families and are missing in Kosovo.

The potential new onslaught prompted a UN World Food Program (WFP) emergency appeal on April 19 for 6 million food packets. "The refugee movement is going to get worse before it gets better," warns Abby Spring, a WFP spokeswoman. "If there are really these many people, it means our aid effort will be stretched to the limit. It means countries providing more food and providing more camps."

Supplies coming in

For now, food is not a problem in Kukes. About 100 tons is arriving a day in NATO helicopters and by truck. But many refugees do not know where to go to collect aid. And there are other problems, including what some aid officials say is a lack of coordination. "The whole aid effort could certainly be improved," asserts one official, pointing to the lack of camp space. "Individual agencies have done incredible things. But there is no collective effort."

Refugees arriving at the border say that aid workers handing out water, food, and blankets do not provide directions on where to go or what to do. Many like the Rexhepis decided to settle in one of the squatter colonies that clog the town's squares and open spaces, straining decrepit electricity and water systems laboring to provide for its 25,000 residents.

"In the summer, in a normal situation, we have to shut it [water] off and ration it," says Baskim Muca, the city council chairman, as workers behind him in the local cultural center hose down the filth from floors on which hundreds of refugees spent the night. "What will happen with this situation?"

Aid officials say they want to prevent the encampments from becoming semipermanent, as happened with refugee camps in the Middle East and Pakistan. They are trying to persuade as many refugees as possible to travel to better, safer facilities in the south: Those on foot are offered rides in fleets of Albanian Army trucks and private minibuses; NATO is now being asked to helicopter them. Those who arrived in Kukes in cars and trucks are urged to drive on.

"Whatever tented camps we build really have to be of temporary character," Mr. Endres of the UNHCR tells the council he chairs of more than two dozen aid agencies. But many refugees refuse to leave, unwilling to be separated from friends and family or to travel farther from the lands from which they have been driven by the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" that intensified as NATO bombing of Yugoslavia began March 24.

Another major problem is security. Day and night, the thuds of explosions echo around the peaks of the Cursed Mountains, which divide Kosovo from Albania. Alarmed, aid agencies are making contingency plans for pulling out at a moment's notice.

Doran Vienneau, a Canadian monitor with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told a meeting of aid agency officials on April 19 that something had to be done to stop local thieves from robbing and defrauding refugees and stealing humanitarian supplies. "It is getting to a crisis stage now," he warns.

Sadik Rexhepi, one of three brothers expelled with their families last week from the Kosovar city of Mitrovica, recounts how he and four neighbors chased away a pack of thieves as they tried to drive off with a tractor. They had pushed it down the hill to jump-start it and people heard it, he says. They ran away.

Leaky lean-to

His niece, Shjipe Jashari, says she hates the mud and water that leak into the low, plastic-covered lean-to in which her extended family sleeps. "It's bad here. I would prefer to be in school."

Bending down to scrub a tattered blanket draped over wood beams, Nafija Osmani says she and her husband are grateful for the water tankers and tents in the Italian camp. But she misses her home and says her four children are unable to drink the milk they receive. "They are used to drinking fresh cow's milk," she sighs.

Space in camp is so tight that some men must sleep under makeshift shelters outside its walls while their wives and children stay inside. Others choose to do so in order to watch over the tractors and wagons they have parked outside; they hope to return in them to Kosovo.

"If we return to Kosovo, [our wagon] would be our first home because they set fire to our house," Kimete Hamza says. For now, she and her husband, Razim, sleep in the wagon while their children and grandchildren stay in the camp.

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