|The Road of Tears||
|An old woman from Kosovo begs for a cup of water after arriving in Albania at the Morini border crossing Monday April 5, 1999 by a van. According to UNHCR estimates, more than 500,000 people have crossed into Albania and Macedonia from Kosovo as Serb forces continue to expel the ethnic Albanian population.|
|April 6, 1999 - Kukes, Albania
Heads bob tiredly, barely visible over the sideboards of dump trucks. Exhausted women stare out of bus and car windows. Dust covered men grimly drive their tractors over potholed muddied tracks which pass for roads in northeastern Albania, pulling their families in wagons behind. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians, expelled by Serb police and army forces from their ancestral homes, are coming here, Albania, to a fate unknown.
As we drive up the road to Kukes, the biggest town in northeastern Albania, the road, really little more than an awful country lane, is jammed with trucks, busses, cars, tractors, all brimming with the dispossessed. The closer we get, the heavier the traffic becomes.
Passing through Kukes is numbing. Thousands of people mill along the streets, a cloud of dust rises from plodding feet. Tractors, busses, cars and trucks all clog the roads, horns blare, diesel motors blast and in the background, faintly but ever-presently, babies wail. The town is over-saturated. Parking lots, empty buildings, sidewalks, street-corners, apartments, hotels, schools; all occupied.
And still they come. At last count some 250,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, Yugoslavia's southern war-torn province, had crossed into Europe's poorest nation. At this rate of expulsion Serb president Slobodan Milosevic's police and army will empty Kosovo of it's indigenous population in less than 40 days. The prospect is horrific.
On the Morini border, the main road south from Kosovo's third largest city Prizren, more than 2000 people an hour cross into Albania. Before April 5 they simply crossed with what possessions they could grab before being expelled by the police and continued their journey to Kukes, some 20 kms. away. Now, however, humanitarian aid agencies meet people on the Albanian side of the border and give them emergency rations and fresh water. Although the aid is slight, it's better than nothing.
There are three points the Serbs are expelling people. The first is south, towards the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Although willing at first to take the refugees, Macedonia's government has subsequently begun to fear its own destabilization because of a delicate ethnic balance that exists between Slavic Macedonians, Albanians, Bulgarians and Greeks. Hence they stopped admitting the refugees last week and now tens of thousands are stuck between the Yugoslav and Macedonian borders, unable to go forward and unwilling to go back.
Second is the rebellious smaller republic of Yugoslavia, Montenegro. Those who crossed into Montenegro are lucky. Still part of Yugoslavia, Montenegro held elections last year and a coalition of anti-Milosevic politicians led by Milo Djukonovic, was able to defeat Milosevic's puppet candidate. Since then Montenegro has liberalized some of the old communist laws, abolished visa requirements and accommodated the foreign press. The refugees coming into Montenegro are forced to pay the Serb police as they leave Kosovo, but they are allowed to keep their passports and number plates on their cars. They are bussed south to Ulcinj, a largely ethnic Albanian town on Montenegro's coast, where they wait the outcome of NATO's conflict with the Serb army.
Finally the majority of the refugees cross into Albania. Through two different crossings they come, one over a bad mountain road and the other down the main road south. If the refugees don't have transport, the police herd them onto busses and drive them to the back of the queue at the border, which some say is over 20 kms. long, and force them to walk. Age and sex make no difference to the cleansers, if an Albanian dies while trying to cross into Albania, then it's simply one less Albanian to deal with.
As the crisis mounts and NATO continues to bomb, though, things change. A bridge on main road to Montenegro was destroyed, perhaps to prevent Milosevic from sending troops into Montenegro to support a possible coup by the Second Army, which is stationed there. A consequence of this action though, is refugees from the north of Kosovo who would go to Montenegro, are forced south and west, towards Albania. And since the Macedonians refuse to let anyone in, those people in the south of Kosovo are also forced west, to exit through Albania. I wonder whether Albania, even with the influx of foreign aid, be able to cope with the onslaught. Will Milosevic really empty Kosovo out?
The answer came sooner than any had expected. As suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Like a tap through which water had been gushing that had been violently wrenched closed. The border was devoid of the thousands. Dust swirled. Yellow plastic packets which were wrapped around emergency food rations lay discarded along the side of the road. Only the customs men and a few police remained by the silent crossing.
Across the border, 100 meters away, Serb soldiers dig in, building trenches, laying land mines and reinforcing their positions along the side of the road. An old man, wearing no shoes eventually shuffles by the Serb border guards, who tell him as he is leaving, "There are a lot of journalists in Albania, make sure you tell them only good things about us."
Good things about the Serbs? Two days before there had been a queue of cars, tractors, busses and trucks 20 kms. long, according to some people. The queue was still there, but lacked humanity. Not one of us knew where the people had gone. The Serbs said they had all decided to go back to their homes. But the queue remained. Some of the cars had been smashed up, some of the tractors burned, but the queue remained. Where were the people? Where do 20 kms. of people disappear to? Apparently even the Americans with their spy satellites and their surveillance aircraft, can't answer this question.
In Kukes, a group of Italian civil defense volunteers has set up a camp for the dispossessed. The tents are army green, there are chemical toilets, stone pathways, a clinic, a pond and a heli-pad for the UNHCR to fly supplies into. Those admitted to the camp considered themselves lucky. The second day after folks moved in, though, a small can of sterno which is distributed with French army rations, spilled onto the floor of a tent and in a heartbeat, four tents were engulfed in an inferno. The unhappy four families who had fled with what they could grab from their homes suddenly found themselves with even less. One family, who didn't have time snatch their clothes from the encroaching flames had their entire savings burned. Being a refugee is not easy.
Walking through the roadside camps I am overwhelmed. I have been to many of the towns and villages where the refugees are from. I understand their attachment to their ancestral homes, to the land and to the beauty that is Kosovo. I empathize with the dispossessed.
I feel bas as I see them queue desperately for bread and milk. I think it is demeaning for these people to queue for food. It's awful to watch as children eat pre-packaged rations that are meant for soldiers in a war. It is the humiliation, or worse, of one race by another.
When I see a small child wail, a mother silently weeping, a man too shaken to string together a coherent sentence, his hands shaking as he grips his tractor's steering wheel, I am appalled and saddened. And yet, when I tell that same man that I'm from America, his face lights up, hope gleams in his eyes, his hands steady and he asks me, when are the troops coming? When indeed?
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