Refugees want only a free Kosovo

A survey of nearly 500 refugees shows most reject NATO's plan for

As badly as Kosovar refugees want to return to their homes in Kosovo, most do not want to go back if the province remains part of Yugoslavia - even if it is guaranteed political autonomy and foreign peacekeepers.

That was one strong message in a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll of Albanian Kosovars now at Fort Dix, N.J., awaiting resettlement elsewhere in the US (see more results, page 8).

While this survey is only suggestive of the views of the roughly one million Kosovo refugees, it is the most comprehensive survey of the refugees yet published.

The yearning to go home was a powerful theme among those interviewed. More than 8 out of 10 wanted to return to their homeland.

"I miss my bed and my blanket," says Bakim Qela, who studied at Pristina University, in Kosovo's capital, before he was forced from his apartment by Serbian police.

Last week, President Clinton promised the refugees they would return. "You left Kosovo with one goal, to return in safety. The United States and its NATO allies are working for that same goal," he said in recorded remarks broadcast across the Balkans in Albanian and Serbian by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

But more than three-quarters of the 459 refugees polled say they do not want to go back to a Serbian-controlled country, even if a peace settlement included international peacekeepers to maintain their safety - which is the outcome NATO officially supports.

Kosovo is a province of Serbia, which with Montenegro makes up what remains of Yugoslavia.

"You know what happened to us," says Berzan Xhemaj, a former student, referring to widespread reports of beatings and massacres by Serbian forces. "How could someone ask us to go back under those conditions?"

This poll surveyed 459 Kosovar refugees among the roughly 3,500 now at Fort Dix. It was taken May 22 and 23, and represents the views of all the refugees at Fort Dix with a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

A future as an autonomous province was clearly unacceptable. More than 8 out of 10 refugees believe Kosovo should be allowed to become independent. "We won't take less," says Fehmi Ramadani, one of those polled.

The need to feel that their homes and families are secure is one reason cited. But more refugees believe they have experienced too much at the hands of former neighbors. An overwhelming majority of those polled - almost 9 out of 10 - say they could not live side by side with Serbs again. "After all the massacres, all the beatings ... I cannot imagine being close to them," says Mr. Ramadani.

On the other hand, only 1 in 10 respondents wanted Kosovo to become part of Albania. They are not dreaming of a "greater Albania."

Even those who say they don't blame all Serbs for the actions of the government cannot see living next door to them again. "I don't blame the Serbian people," says Januz Berisha. But he points out that Serbian forces would not have known who was Albanian in his village if Serbian neighbors hadn't betrayed them. "We've had too many bad experiences," he says.

Gafur Gashi agrees. Serbs looted $85,000 worth of goods from his Pristina market March 28. One week later, they burned his house, sending his family fleeing.

"My best friend was a Serb," says Mr. Gashi, once a prosperous businessman. "He was one of the ones looting my store and hunting for me.... I can never accept that my neighbors would do something like that to me."

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