A vigil for loved ones at the Albania-Kosovo border

Ethnic Albanians have come from near and far to search for relativesamong the waves of refugees fleeing Kosovo.

They have traveled the length of Albania, from the lowlands of the south to the rain-swept mountainous north, scouring dozens of refugee camps, scanning hundreds of registries with tens of thousands of names, and questioning scores of people.

They have slept in their car, dingy hotels, and the homes of kind strangers; they've placed ads in newspapers and an announcement on state-run television. But one month and almost 2,000 miles into their odyssey, Ismet Ahmeti and Baskin Jashari have yet to locate their relatives from Kosovo - 33 in all.

This week has brought them in their mud-splattered automobile on a second trip to the refugee camps of Kukes and the nearby Morina border post, the portal through which Serbian "ethnic cleansers" have driven most of the 367,000 ethnic Albanian refugees now in Albania.

Mr. Ahmeti and Mr. Jashari, two longtime friends, are not alone. Untold numbers are searching for relatives fleeing the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. At the trash-strewn Morina crossing, dozens of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo linger from dawn until dusk, aching to see loved ones emerge from behind a row of concrete tank traps and cross the no man's land into the safety of Albania.

Refugee flow

But the vigils have become harder to keep. What was a human tidal wave has for unknown reasons slowed to a trickle since April 18 - although the refugee flow to Albania and Macedonia increased slightly yesterday.

And reports of Serbian atrocities are swelling by the day, deepening the dread of those on watch. Refugees interviewed yesterday on the border say about 300 men had been pulled out of their column of tractors and cars by the Serbs and forced to kneel in a field near the village of Maja. What happened to them remains unknown, although many refugees fear they have been killed.

Still, all those interviewed say they will persist for as long as they can. "I will stay here until I lose all my hope or my family arrives," says Shaban Kamberi, a father of five from Prizren, who last spoke to his wife three weeks ago from Switzerland, where he was on a visit.

The slowdown in the exodus is also troubling international aid officials and NATO governments, which believe large numbers of Kosovo's 2 million majority ethnic Albanians are still inside the war-ravaged province a month into NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia. But just how many remain - and what has happened to them - is unknown.

"Our immediate concern is their physical security," says Ray Wilkinson, a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "We are a month into a crisis in which people are in a state of war, in which the controlling authorities are intent on expelling, killing, and traumatizing [ethnic Albanians]. There are obviously a lot of people on the run." He says the agency considers credible reports that Serbian forces are confining people around potential NATO targets or compelling them to dig graves and trenches.

One day this week, more than 100 ethnic Albanians wait outside the warped iron gates of the border post. Some have arrived earlier from Kosovo. Others have converged on Morina from across Europe.

All hope to see a familiar face or catch a reassuring word from some of the several hundred refugees dribbling in throughout the day in tractor-drawn wagons and cars and on foot. Their attention is also drawn overhead to several American A-10 tank-buster aircraft that are apparently hitting Serbian targets behind a nearby mountain, from where several large blasts echo.

As each forlorn group of refugees is mobbed by photographers and handed water and food by aid workers, watchers on a grassy bank crane their necks for a better view or saunter over for closer looks. On this day, there are no reunions.

'We are up here every day'

More than 80 watchers are men from Petrovo, a village near the town of Prizren, who say they were separated from their families, put on buses, and driven to the border by Serbian police on April 22. "We are up here every day, just hoping that our families will come," says a teacher, who declines to give his name because of fears for the safety of his wife and children. "We are afraid they are using them for human shields."

Jashari, who works in Dsseldorf, Germany, installing ceilings with Ahmeti, also fears the worst for his mother, his grandfather, grandmother, two aunts, and his brother and his family. He says the last time he spoke to his mother and brother was by telephone March 24, when they told him that masked Serbian police were marauding through their hometown of Vucitrn.

His anxiety deepened after meeting some neighbors in Kukes several days ago. They told him they were among some 180 people who sought safety from Serbian shellfire in the basement of his family's home. The next day they left for Macedonia but were stopped and turned around by Serbian police. "When they went back, they saw my home was empty and had been looted," says Jashari, whose wife and children live in Dsseldorf.

Ahmeti, whose wife and children also live in Dsseldorf, decided to come to Albania to look for 25 family members, including his parents, after watching a news broadcast in which he saw a niece sitting with other refugees on the steps of a building in Kukes. "I think she was by herself because the camera moved very slowly and took in the whole scene," he says. "I recorded the piece and studied it very closely, playing it back slowly." He says he saw no other relatives.

With Jashari accompanying him, the pair drove through Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, where they boarded a ferry for the Albanian port of Durres, arriving March 28. They have been searching every day since, the names of Ahmeti's missing relatives written on a piece of paper taped to a window of his car.

"We have been looking all over Albania - in Shkodra, Tirana, Korca, Elbassan, Lejza, Kruje," he says, reeling off the names of most of Albania's main cities. "This is the second time we have been here. I have gone through camps; I have looked at police registries. I will make another tour of Albania if I have to."

By Jashari's count, the pair has visited more than 50 camps. They have also inquired after their relatives among refugees living in factories, schools, and private homes. "I feel like a machine," he says, standing outside a decrepit cafe near the border post. "I don't know where else to go. If I was to return to Germany without my parents, brothers, and sister, I could not stay there very long as they might be dying."

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