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Serbian Attacks Turn Villagers Into Refugees

August 20, 1998

by Stacy Sullivan and Guy Dinmore
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 20, 1998

VRANOC, Yugoslavia—The old woman sitting on a wool blanket near a stream outside this village in western Kosovo said she wanted to tell her story, but when she started recounting what had driven her into the woods to hide, she started to cry.

Until last week, Fatmira, 75, lived with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and six grandchildren in Ratish, a village near the city of Pec. Then Serbian forces attacked the town.

Fatmira’s 80-year-old husband was too weak to flee and said he would rather die in his home than on the run. So Fatmira, her daughter-in-law and grandchildren loaded a tractor with whatever they could and fled to a neighboring village, while her son took to the hills to fight with the Kosovo Liberation Army, the rebel band seeking independence for this Serbian-dominated republic of Yugoslavia where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbians 9 to 1. But somewhere in the confusion of flight, Fatmira got separated from the rest of her family.

“My husband is surely dead, and I don’t know the fate of my grandchildren,” she said. “I never thought I would end up alone in the forest at 75.” Fatmira, who asked that her last name not be used, and about 500 other refugees are now camping along a riverbank in tents made of plastic and tree branches.
A six-month-old Serbian military offensive has routed guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army from large swaths of western and southwestern Kosovo. It also has spawned a refugee crisis that international aid officials say could become a humanitarian catastrophe as another Balkan winter approaches.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that about 230,000 people — more than 10 percent of the population — have been forced from their homes since late February. About half of them have sought shelter with friends or relatives, but an estimated 100,000 are stranded in hills and valleys, and aid organizations say they are ill-equipped to provide adequate assistance to them.
“The scale of the emergency is way beyond the ability of the relief agencies to deal with it,” said Paul Kirwan, director of emergency operations for the International Rescue Committee.
The U.N. refugee agency estimates that 20,000 refugees, living under trees or in crowded farmhouses, are trapped in western Kosovo, surrounded by government forces. Surrounding villages are still smoldering from an attack that began on Saturday when helicopters and jets of the Yugoslav air force attacked their homes near Pec, a garrison city.
“They shell the villages to make civilians flee,” said Brim Sokalaj, 57, a builder. “Then come the tanks. They loot and put everything in trucks and then set fire to the houses.”
In the surrounding fields, corn is waiting to be harvested but villagers are too afraid to go back. The rotting carcasses of cattle and burned-out haystacks give testimony to what diplomats call the “scorched-earth” tactics of the Serbians as they try to eradicate popular support for the guerrillas.
The refugees camping out with Fatmira, many of them children, had some pots and pans, some wood from the village, onions and peppers. Some had brought mattresses and other supplies with them. But aid workers say most of those in the hills do not have access to safe drinking water, and they fear epidemics of diarrhea, cholera and typhus.
“It will take a massive effort to keep these people alive where they are at the moment,” said Richard Acland, a field officer for the U.N. refugee agency.
Although agencies such as the International Red Cross and International Rescue Committee have delivered convoys of flour, oil, water-purification tablets and other supplies, none of the refugees interviewed said they had received any aid. “We’ve only reached a drop in the ocean, and we’re typical,” Kirwan said.
A local cease-fire was negotiated by the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission around Pec on Monday, giving aid agencies a chance to bring in doctors and supplies. They were hampered, however, by poor roads, bad maps and an inability to communicate with one another because the Yugoslav government forbids the use of two-way radios.
Musa Berisha, a local human-rights activist, said he was trying to secure agreement for a corridor to evacuate the refugees out of Kosovo, either to the small Yugoslav republic of Montenegro to the west, or south to Albania and Macedonia.
The rebels, however, want the local population to stay put while Western diplomats fear that a mass exodus of refugees would further destabilize neighboring countries.
Tim Boucher, mission head for Doctors Without Borders, said the relief organization is making plans for winter shelter for refugees. But many aid workers acknowledge the international response to the crisis has been slow and claim it has been badly coordinated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.N. agency contends it is understaffed and poorly funded.
Relief workers estimate that up to 1 million people in Kosovo will need aid this winter unless the situation improves soon. Western governments, already struggling to cope with more than 2 million refugees left over from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, are unwilling to foot the bill.
In addition to those camped outside, nearly every household in western Kosovo has swelled to several times its normal size as tens of thousands of the displaced seek shelter with family or friends.
In normal times Vranoc is home to about 1,000 people, but it is now providing shelter to more than 6,000. It was attacked by Serb forces at the end of May, and several grenades have landed in the village over the past few days. The town has been without electricity or water for nearly two weeks, and residents fear it may come under attack again.
“We’ve taken in all we can,” said a resident, Shefaet Krasniqi, 24. “We’re starting to run short of food and supplies.”

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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