On a slow boat to Albania, to find their refugee families

Wraith-like they drift onto the night-shrouded decks, their battered suitcases and plastic sacks bulging with clothes and blankets for wives and children languishing in refugee-choked Albania.

Knowing their families survived the Serbian pogroms in Kosovo had brought relief. But it has been two weeks since the teary, hurried phone calls from Kukes, the northern Albanian town inundated by waves of ethnic Albanians expelled from the secessionist province.

Now as they leave the Slovenian port of Koper on a 28-hour run down the Adriatic Sea to Albania, none of the four dozen ethnic Albanian men aboard the hulking, rust-stained ferry Hornbeam know their loved ones' whereabouts.

Xhefer Zogaj has a wife and three children, aged 2, 4, and 7. "I only know they were in Kukes. My brother called to say come as fast you can. They have no food, no clothes, no money, nothing."

The men on the Hornbeam are not alone. From Europe and the United States, unknown numbers of ethnic Albanians who were outside Kosovo when NATO's air campaign began March 24 are making their way to Albania, many to search for family. Others are flocking to join the battered rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), determined to continue its battle for independence.

"Now is the time to win our freedom," says Xhevdet Elshani, one of four friends aboard the Hornbeam planning to join the KLA. "This is our last chance. We have NATO on our side and this is the right time." Mr. Elshani says he served in the special forces of the former Yugoslav People's Army during his mandatory military service in 1988 and will use his old skills in the KLA.

"It's not fair that we are working and making money while people in Kosovo are dying," says Elshani, a truck driver who was picking up humanitarian aid in Hungary when the Serbian onslaught in Kosovo started.

Getting to Albania is difficult. With regular airlinks suspended, the only sure way is by road from Macedonia and Greece or ferries from Slovenia and Italy. Crammed with aid-ladened Dutch and German trucks and Red Cross jeeps, the British-owned Hornbeam makes the trip once a week. A flight chartered by KLA sympathizers was to arrive in Tirana today from New York bearing supplies and rebel recruits.

The Hornbeam's passengers spend hours standing at wind-swept rails or in dingy salons made grimmer by walls of faded yellow formica. Above them in the azure sky float the contrails of NATO jets sweeping in to bomb Yugoslavia. Strangers before the trip, they exchange tales of their families' ordeals, some undoubtedly embellished beyond the few details that could be gleaned in the frantic minutes they had to talk.

MOST are construction laborers in Slovenia. Like tens of thousands of other ethnic Albanians working in Western Europe or the US, they are the sole breadwinners of large extended families, which is how most of Kosovo's 2 million majority ethnic Albanians live. Since Belgrade fired tens of thousands from state jobs when it revoked Kosovo's autonomy in 1989, virtually every family sends at least one male away to earn money.

Unable to leave their jobs when talks between the independence-seeking KLA and Belgrade collapsed last month, they followed the unfolding crisis in Kosovo on satellite television. Watching in their rough workers' hostels, they strained to catch a glimpse of family or friends in the rivers of refugees driven by the Serbs into Albania and Macedonia.

Tahir Morina says other workers in his hostel learned from one broadcast that his brother had been executed by masked Serbian police hunting for a KLA sniper. He last heard his wife and three children were holed up with thousands of others in the KLA-held Pagarusa Valley. "I'm not sure if they are still there," he says, choking back tears. "I'm hoping there is news in Albania."

Hajrosh Daka says all he can think about is the six-month-old son he has never seen. After giving birth, his wife went to live with his brother's family near the city of Prizren. They were forced to flee to Albania about 10 days ago.

"I know she is somewhere in Kukes," Mr. Daka says, "because my brother told me they would refuse to go any farther until I arrived." But his certainty fades as he acknowledges that many refugees have been transferred to camps elsewhere in Albania or flown to temporary refuge in some NATO countries.

Those searching for families say they will start by reviewing lists of refugees registered by humanitarian agencies. Next they'll try tracking down people from their towns or villages who might know where their relatives might be.

Abdulla Surdaj hopes his wife and children have found their way to relatives living in Albania after being forced to trek 45 miles to Kukes two weeks ago from Banja Malisevo with some 200,000 others. He is more fortunate than most. "I have relatives in Durres," says Mr. Surdaj. "I hope they have some information."

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