Among Albanians, ethnic bond offers refuge from war

In the past five months, thousands of ethnic Albanians have fled Macedonia.

Last week, as a Macedonian fighter jet buzzed her neighborhood, Sebanate Rahmani jumped into a taxi with her three young sons and headed for the Kosovo border.

An ethnic-Albanian woman from the Macedonian capital, Skopje, Mrs. Rahmani felt compelled to leave her home because she feared fighting between Macedonian security forces and ethnic-Albanian rebels in the nearby mountains would spread.

But unlike many Macedonian Slav refugees from the five-month conflict, Rahmani was not stepping into the uncertainty of a refugee camp. Instead, she put her faith in a debt of gratitude and an ancient code of ethnic solidarity.

Tens of thousands of ethnic-Albanian refugees from Macedonia are relying on the same system of host families and national support they provided for their cousins from Kosovo during the crisis there two years ago.

The Canon of Lek Dukagini, an Albanian traditional law dating back to the 14th century, assigns special status to guests.

"The house of an Albanian belongs only to God and guests, and one must shelter strangers," explains Teuta Arifi, a professor of Albanian language and literature at Skopje University.

"When there is a feeling that the nation is threatened, the community mobilizes under traditional law," she says.

So, when Rahmani entered Kosovo, she sought out Sali Qiraxhiu, an old friend who understands her trouble.

A plumber from the Kosovar village of Nugodim, Mr. Qiraxhiu went through the same thing two years ago when he fled, with his wife and three small children, from Serbian police. He was among 350,000 ethnic-Albanian refugees who fled to Macedonia in the spring of 1999 during NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia.

Only 90,000 of those refugees ended up in refugee camps, while most were taken in by local ethnic-Albanian families. Rahmani, a distant cousin, sheltered the Qiraxhiu family for three months during the war in Kosovo.

Now, roles are reversed. The civil war brewing in Macedonia has already forced 100,000 people from their homes. Some 70,000 ethnic-Albanians have fled into Kosovo, and Qiraxhiu is now sheltering 12 members of the same family that took him in when he came to Skopje. "This is our Albanian tradition," he says over breakfast with his new guests. "I know how it hurts to have to escape from your own home with hungry children and only the clothes you are wearing."

While a few thousand Macedonian-Slav refugees have been housed in refugee centers in Skopje, virtually all ethnic-Albanian refugees have found host families, either in safer parts of Macedonia or in neighboring Kosovo.

"We have been under pressure from both the Serbs and the Macedonians for a long time, and we have learned to stick together to survive," says Isa Skreta, a Kosovar volunteer for the Mother Teresa organization at the Blace border crossing between Macedonia and Kosovo.

Mr. Skreta has been working on the border for three months now, helping ethnic-Albanian refugees find places to stay and distributing food aid. He says he has smuggled dozens of ethnic-Albanian refugees without passports through the border.

Recently, he took on the case of the Jashari family, ethnic-Albanian subsistence farmers from Macedonia who had nowhere to turn for help.

He sent them to the city council in Ferizaj, where local families with extra rooms are signing up to take in refugees. There are still more places available than refugees to fill them.

That's how Rexhep Jashari and 21 of his relatives, from the ethnic-Albanian enclave of Singilic, near Skopje, ended up living in a stranger's house in Varosh, Kosovo.

"Before we left our village, we were sheltering 20 refugees from the conflict around Lipkovo," Jashari says, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Then we heard armed Macedonian Slavs were telling Albanians to leave the country. The day we left, one man was killed in his house by the paramilitaries and more than 20 people were beaten at a police checkpoint. Everyone left the village in a panic."

His family had no money for transportation, Jashari says, but when they approached a bus headed into Kosovo, the ethnic-Albanian driver took them on board for free.

"I am grateful to our people for helping us, but I still like my home best," Jashari says. "We can't go back until the politicians make a peace agreement. I hope we will be able to go back very soon."

But returning home may prove difficult, as there is more trouble afoot in Jashari's home village. On Sunday, three ethnic-Albanian-owned homes in Singilic were demolished by Macedonian police, who employed prisoners to smash the buildings with sledge hammers. Most of the residents of the houses are in exile in Kosovo.

Police told local media that the houses had no building permits. Residents would normally be allowed to pay a fee to obtain the permit, but villagers say this raid came without warning. The demolitions are seen by the Albanian community as another police tactic of harassment. Now, 17 other houses in the village are marked for demolition.

In the rubble of one house, a child's shoe, a vase of flowers, and an iron are visible. Tasim Etemi, a neighbor, says he was drinking tea in the house with the owner when the police arrived. "They had no court order, nothing. They tied us up outside and hit us with the stocks of their guns. Then, they destroyed the house with everything inside. There is no way the refugees can return now. Soon they will have no homes left."

Back in Varosh, the mood is bleak. "We can't live on hospitality forever," Mr. Jashari says. "We have nothing here, and Macedonia is our home. I hope there will be peace soon."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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