Shaky welcome for Kosovo's refugees

They favor Germany as a destination, but their legal status is quite

To call Bekim Bekolli fortunate seems out of place. The shy young man with sad eyes fled into Macedonia from Kosovo two months ago with his parents, a sister-in-law, and two nephews.

In the chaos at the Blace refugee camp, Mr. Bekolli's father was sent to Turkey while the rest of the family was flown to Germany as Macedonian authorities, unwilling hosts to the flood of Kosovo Albanians, moved thousands on to third countries.

"We could never have imagined that this would happen to us," says Bekolli, a farmer from a village near the Kosovar capital, Pristina. "Of course we're not happy we had to flee, but we're happy we're still alive."

Despite the prospects for a cessation of hostilities in Kosovo, little has changed for the refugees, especially for those now hundreds of miles away from home. Since mid-May, Bekolli and four family members have occupied two bare rooms in a refugee hostel in Berlin. Battered gray lockers serve as closets for their meager possessions. The room is stuffy; the neighbors are loud.

Yet the Bekollis do belong to the fortunate few - so far some 14,000 Kosovo refugees - who have been evacuated to Germany. Even as NATO and the Yugoslav military hold shaky contacts, several hundred refugees are being flown out of Macedonia to complete Germany's allowance of 15,000 refugees. Britain, France, and the US have taken about 5,000 Kosovo refugees each.

In the early 1990s, Germany took in more than 300,000 Bosnian refugees, more than any other Western European country. But after the Dayton peace agreement was signed in 1995, the hospitality of Germany's cash-strapped cities and states ran out, and refugees were put under intense pressure to return to Bosnia.

Until a secure repatriation is possible, Kosovo refugees in Germany will be allowed to remain. Like other evacuees, the Bekollis have been given temporary-residence permits, which must be renewed every three months.

What drew the family to Germany in the first place was the hope that they could join Bekolli's three brothers, who have been living elsewhere in the country for six years. But the bureaucratic process is long and German authorities are generally disinclined to bring together separated families. Because of a significant Kosovo Albanian community in Germany, the government fears that a policy of family reunification would cause a huge influx of potential immigrants.

"One problem is that refugees don't want to go to certain countries," says Stefan Telken, spokesman for the German office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bonn. "They want to be placed in countries that already have Kosovo Albanian communities, such as Germany, Switzerland, or Austria."

Of the 1,000 refugees evacuated to Poland, for example, 100 have reportedly left to enter Germany illegally. An unknown number of Kosovo Albanians have also made their way here on their own.

'We came to Germany because we thought there was more democracy here," says one refugee, who entered the country illegally via Italy and Austria, along with his wife and small daughter. The auto mechanic from the Kosovar town of Prizren refuses to reveal his name. He says Serbian police detained him in a sports center along with some 300 other ethnic Albanian men. Until he managed to run away, he was forced to dig graves. He says his wife, who sits in silence with a hand over her eyes, was held in a barracks and repeatedly raped by Serbian police.

The family escaped Kosovo with their lives; their money, gold, and passports were stolen by Serbian border guards. They have the lowest legal status - no more than a temporary suspension of deportation - valid for six months. If there is even a modicum of peace in Kosovo when their permits expire, however, renewal is unlikely.

They have half a year of certainty, no more.

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