A resurgence of Kosovar refugees

More than 20,000 have fled Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city, sinceFriday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Kosovo's most diverse city - a place shared for centuries by ethnic Albanians, Serbs, ethnic Turks, Muslim Slavs, and others - may not be for much longer.

Largely spared since NATO began bombing Yugoslavia, Prizren is now in the cross hairs of the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" that has swept Kosovo over the past six weeks.

More than 20,000 ethnic Albanians from the Prizren area have fled since Friday in the third major refugee wave to wash into Albania. In all, more than 380,000 refugees have overwhelmed Europe's poorest state and further strained international aid efforts.

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But instead of putting Prizren to the torch, as they have done to countless towns and villages elsewhere, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's commanders appear to have other plans for the city. Refugees say it is being turned into a veritable fortress shielded by a still large ethnic Albanian civilian population.

Huge numbers of troops, police, and paramilitary gangs have moved into schools and the homes of expelled ethnic Albanians, refugees say. Armored vehicles and ammunition stocks are being stashed in factories and around public buildings. Ammunition crates are also stored under camouflage netting on side streets, as are military and commandeered civilian trucks holding fuel and other supplies.

The strategy appears to have two aims. The first is hiding Serbian forces, their equipment, and supplies from NATO satellites, spy planes, and airstrikes. Fuel has become especially critical with the imposition of a petroleum embargo on Yugoslavia by the European Union, which took effect Friday. In addition, President Clinton imposed Friday an embargo on Serbia that bars US exports of oil.

The second apparent aim is preparing for a possible NATO ground invasion from Albania. Refugees report seeing large groups of young ethnic Albanian men, who had been rounded up, digging trench lines in several areas between Prizren and the Albanian border.

"We saw them as we came here. They were wearing green coveralls," says Bekim Samariti, after crossing the Albanian border with his pregnant wife.

Though they can't be independently confirmed, refugee interviews provide frightening snapshots of the days leading up to the exodus that began April 30 from Kosovo's second-largest city.

While none report the kinds of atrocities allegedly committed elsewhere in Kosovo, refugees describe a place of dread, where armed Serbian civilians cruise in cars without license plates and hundreds of young ethnic Albanian men have been taken from their families. Only the elderly venture from their homes to look for food. But all ethnic Albanian-owned shops were looted at the start of the war, refugees say, and the few open stores are run by Serbs who refuse to sell to ethnic Albanians.

"You can't find milk, bread, or anything else because they are selling only to Serbs," says Fazi Kalendari. "Serbs are moving freely in the city. But we Albanians and those who are not Serbian are oppressed. I made a place beneath my roof to hide to escape from the police. Sometimes, they don't look in the roof."

There are regular power and water supplies, but many refugees say their families had only beans, flour, pasta, and sugar to eat. For two weeks "we just ate bread and some milk," says Izbis Cocaj. From the time they were driven from their home Friday morning to arriving Saturday afternoon in Albania, Mr. Cocaj had only a bottle of soda to feed his wife and infant daughter.

The refugees' descriptions contrast with Prizren's history as a place of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity.

Nestled in a valley, Prizren developed as a medieval melting pot and wealthy trading center on a key crossroad between what is today Albania and Greece. Much of its graceful Ottoman architecture and mix of ethnic groups and faiths survived into this century: A 1991 census put its population at 132,000 ethnic Albanians, 11,000 Serbs and Montenegrins, 19,000 Muslim Slavs, 7,000 ethnic Turks, and more than 4,000 others, including Gypsies (Roma) and Croats.

While the main target of the Serbian purge is the city's ethnic Albanian majority, refugees say, many ethnic Turks and Muslim Slavs have also fled. Not only do they suffer discrimination because they are Muslims, but they do not want to be mobilized by the Yugoslav military, they say.

Refugees say NATO hit a local military base March 25, but there were no further strikes until last Wednesday, when the state-run television transmitter was bombed. It was struck again Friday, they say. "Every time we heard the NATO bombs, people [ethnic Albanians] clapped and cheered," says Mr. Samariti.

As for ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army, refugees say gunfire echoes outside the city, but nothing else indicates that they are active.

Refugees say soldiers, police, and paramilitaries move into ethnic Albanian homes after giving the occupants minutes to leave. In the last few days, refugees say, forces have also occupied the cultural center, outside of which a tank is reportedly parked; the 17th of November and Fadil Hisari schools; and public buildings. All are said to be surrounded by sandbag emplacements.

Army and commandeered civilian trucks holding ammunition, food, and fuel are parked in narrow side streets blocked to civilians. Troops have also occupied the Printeks printing plant, the Komuna shoe factory, the Perlonka textile plant, and at least two other factories, refugees say.

"There isn't a gun left in the barracks. They have taken everything out of the barracks and put them into private homes," contends Jasim Hulaj after arriving in Albania. "They seize private trucks and use them for the Army."

Refugees agree Serbian forces are trying to shield themselves from NATO attacks. But they also say the alliance should not spare their homes. Samariti, whose elderly parents remain in Prizren, asserts: "My father says, 'If NATO bombs our house, it's OK.' I have two houses. If they bomb both, I will rebuild them."

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