Homes are flung open for refugees

In ethnic bond, Macedonia's Albanians take up the slack left by

Some 40 pairs of shoes are lined up outside the door to Imer Krasniqi's basement, each belonging to a new guest in the home. Mr. Krasniqi's house sits atop a narrow dirt road in Dijonska, the old-town section and the ethnic Albanian side of Skopje, Macedonia's capital.

Krasniqi proudly opens the basement door to reveal nine families from Kosovo, 23 children in all. They sit with preternatural quietness below an Albanian flag and photos of Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova and a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commander from their village in Kosovo.

Krasniqi says he buys 35 loaves of bread a day out of his own pocket to feed the families, which are somehow all related to him. But he is just one in a network of ethnic Albanians who have made a little room for the refugees in their own homes.

For now, the women and children sleep here in the basement. Four men sleep in Krasniqi's business, a teahouse. Five other husbands are still in Kosovo, fighting with the KLA. Their wives have not heard from them.

One cousin here is Bahtir Haradinaj, an engineering professor who escaped the Kosovo capital of Pristina last week. By using a cellular phone that was being passed around the Blace refugee camp, he found his way to the Krasniqi home after calling his cousin Imer. Everyone pauses when the image of an American Apache helicopter flashes on the TV; the room breaks out in a cheer. As one Kosovar puts it, "We are all KLA now."

Up and down this warren of houses in Dijonska, the scene is repeated. Nearly every family has taken in refugees, and they squabble among themselves to show a reporter which family has taken the most. Just west of Skopje, around the town of Tetovo, 3,000 refugees are housed in a German camp; 27,000 are in private homes, says Tetovo Mayor Nurtezan Ismaili.

For days the world saw the tragedy at the muddy Blace camp in Macedonia, where some 200,000 Kosovars waited while the Macedonian government temporized over what to do with them, and for complicated political reasons did not take care of them.

What is less recognized, now that the refugees have been transported from the border, is the role played by the informal network of Albanians that sprang up overnight. They have been shocked at a catastrophe many Macedonian Albanians thought would never happen - despite warnings from the Kosovars.

Relying on a deeply held ethos of service and unselfishness among themselves, thousands of local Albanians have quit their jobs to distribute water, organize housing, and care for the sick. Many of them say they can think of nothing else.

In the first days of the crisis, buses leaving Blace stopped briefly at a restaurant 500 yards from the camp, where a line of Albanian men waited and stood holding their hands up. One put up two fingers. One put up five. Seven people got off the bus and were escorted by the men to their homes. The men didn't know the refugees. They just took them.

"I work 48 hours and then sleep four hours," says Leke Zyerova, who left his job as an executive for an American-based firm to help El Hilal, the main Albanian relief agency here. "I can't wait to get up. This is a crossroads for our community. "

AT THE chaotic El Hilal headquarters downtown, Mr. Zyerova pleads from a crowded room to a packed hallway of young Albanian men waiting outside, saying, "We don't need any more. We don't need any more. Please go away unless you are a doctor." A senior international aid official here says, "We aren't the ones who have kept these people going. The Albanians have done it themselves."

Nor have the refugees been idle. At a British NATO camp, Kosovars and soldiers pitch tents. Nurses from the hospital in Pristina work with the NATO field hospital medical team. The NATO team is full of praise for the care given by the Pristina nurses, who they say have better feeling for what is needed among the families.

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