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EXPELLED AND BEWILDERED
by Nils Carstensen, 11 April 1999, Kukes, Albania
Along with 1500 others, they crossed into Albania overnight and stopped on the outskirts of the small north-eastern town of Kukes. Over a hundred tractors, trailers, and small cars are parked on a littered field just under a snow-clad mountain slope. People sit in small groups or on piles of their remaining possessions. Not much is said, and most seem to to be gazing inwards. Quite a few journalists, photographers and TV-crews are drifting around looking for people to interview. A few hundred meters to the left of the field, the ruins of a decaying industrial site add to the desolation of the scene.
These refugees come from Vragoli, a small village a few kilometers outside Pristina. Avdyl Orllati was the teacher there. "The Serbian soldiers came yesterday morning, threatening us and shooting in the air. They told us to leave right away," he says. "First they said we should walk, then they changed their minds and told us to take our tractors and cars. They gave us half an hour to get going. ‘Go to Albania,’ they said, ‘that’s where you belong. Kosovo is for Serbs.You should go to NATO - they'll take care of you.’ Before we left, they took all our identity papers and car license plates. They took some people’s money, but not from all."
On the 14-hour drive to the border, Mr Orllati saw one destroyed village after the other, but no people other than Serbian soldiers. In contrast to some of the refugees who arrived here a few days ago, nobody in this group had been beaten or wounded or seen their relatives shot before getting out of Kosovo. Mr Orllati came with his wife, their two sons and three other relatives. Right now he has no idea what will happen to them.
The narrow, spiralling, pot-holed mountain road leading up to Kukes is busier than ever before. Trucks carrying relief supplies are crawling up from Tirana - a more than eight-hour drive. Down the same road goes an even steadier stream of tractors, cars from Kosovo stripped of their licence plates, buses and Albanian army trucks. All carry refugees to Tirana and other parts of central and southern Albania.
"We've only some 70,000 refugees left up here," explains Jacques Franquin from the Kukes office of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Most of the 310,000 refugees who entered Albania over the last weeks came through Kukes. Considering that, the overall situation has improved a lot from the terribly overcrowded conditions of just a few days ago. "The Albanian authorities have done a great job getting the refugees out of here," Franquin adds. Most of the remaining 70,000 refugees in Kukes are either newcomers or people who want to stay close to the border for the time being. Those who left went on either to Albanian host families or to transit centers. Some went to the refugee camps now shooting up in many parts of the relatively more affluent parts of Albania near the Mediterranean coast.
Over the past week ACT International has airlifted tents and blankets for 900 families into Kukes. Work on a first camp for 2000 refugees is to begin tomorrow. More than 60 tons of food was distributed in the initial stage of the emergency. Another 20 tons of food and basic hygiene items will be distributed in the coming days. ACT also plans to assist thousands of refugees and host families throughout Albania. The Albanian member of ACT - Diakonia Agapes, the diaconial wing of the Albanian Orthodox Church - is contributing actively to the work and making plans for the coming weeks and months.
Like others involved in providing humanitarian aid to the refugees from Kosovo, ACT is uncertain what will happen next. Do families like those of Mr Orllati and Mr Sllamniku mark the end of the exodus that began in late March? Or do they represent the beginning of another huge wave? And how many more refugees can Albania - a country that would need decades to recover from the former regime even without the refugees - absorb?
The mood among aid workers and journalists in Kukes is as grim as that of the newly-arrived refugees. Memories of last week's "hell on earth" at the border are still too fresh. Curses and fists shaken against Slobodan Milosevic are common currency among the refugees lining up for food, or waiting at the public phone booth in hopes of being able to contact lost relatives. Out on the open field, Mr Sllamniku's daughter is not alone in her shock and confusion. Bewilderment and a deep sense of tragedy reign in Kukes.
[The author of this feature, Nils Carstensen, is the communications officer of ACT International. ACT is a worldwide network of Churches and related agencies meeting human need through coordinated emergency response. The ACT Coordinating office is based with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.]
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 336, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.