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Balkans Special Report

  Refugees at Fort Dix Tell of War Crimes

Kosovar refugees, AFP
Kosovo refugees arrive at McGuire Air Fore Base before their transfer to housing at Ft. Dix, N.J. (AFP)
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 1999; Page A3

FORT DIX, N.J. As she sat in a wheelchair clutching an English-Albanian dictionary, Flutra Haziri let go of her story in fragments, between bursts of tears and words of comfort from a nurse squeezing her hand.

She was leaving the Kosovo town of Pristina with other ethnic Albanians who were being forcibly expelled when Serbian "paramilitaries" jumped out of a car and seized her and a cousin. She is vague about what happened next. She will say only that she told her cousin to run and was "beaten." Later, she saw her parents and two uncles slaughtered. Since then, she has been unable to walk.

"They massacred my family," Haziri told David Scheffer, head of the State Department's war crimes office, during an impromptu meeting here recently. "Now I'm in a wheelchair. . . . I don't want to live this way. I fear it will be for the rest of my life."

"I'm 23 years old, but it seems to me I've lived 100 years; that's how much I've suffered," she said as she choked back sobs. "I was an only child. Now I'm alone."

Haziri's ordeal is of interest to government war crimes investigators, but she is not yet ready to tell the whole story. It is only in recent days that she has begun to speak of her experiences at all, and doctors still do not know whether the paralysis below her waist was caused by physical injuries she has bruises on her hips and back or by psychological trauma.

Other refugees, however, are opening up. In a converted racquetball court off a base gymnasium that has been turned into a reception center, they are providing U.S. government interviewers with details of atrocities they say were committed by Serb forces in Kosovo. The human rights group Amnesty International also is collecting accounts of war crimes in a separate process at Fort Dix, where more than 4,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees have found temporary refuge after being evacuated from camps in Macedonia.

Both the State Department and Amnesty International plan to send the testimonies to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague to identify witnesses and alleged perpetrators for follow-up investigations. The tribunal, which has indicted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four top aides for war crimes in Kosovo, is seeking witnesses who can testify about atrocities in the event that it can bring anyone to trial. Further indictments are expected, U.S. officials said.

The United States also plans to help document war crimes on the ground in Kosovo once U.S. troops are deployed there as part of a NATO force under a new peace plan.

In their interviews with State Department officials, refugees have told of rapes at the Pristina train station and implicated Serbian former neighbors who had joined paramilitary groups or suddenly appeared in green military uniforms as Yugoslav army reservists. They have described brutal killings and the use of refugees as human shields for convoys of tanks and other military equipment.

The government has posted signs urging the refugees to provide information about atrocities for the war crimes tribunal. "Your story is important," the signs say in Albanian. In response, refugees have been pointing investigators to those with the most compelling stories, but they can be interviewed only after they have been screened by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for "admissibility" to the United States.

The Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency in charge of the refugee program, insists on shielding the identities of those interviewed for fear of retaliation against family members who might still be in Kosovo.

According to written summaries of their testimony, refugees described cold-blooded killings and implicated some Serb neighbors by name, although they said most of the perpetrators wore masks to conceal their identities. One 40-year-old man from Pristina said masked gunmen he believed to be Serbian police broke into his home on March 31 and beat him and an older woman with clubs and rifle butts for sheltering about 30 displaced Kosovo Albanians.

The ethnic Albanians were then herded into the street and told they had to leave. The witness said he saw masked men shoot an elderly neighbor who dared to ask, "Where can I go?"

At the Pristina train station, he saw police drag two young girls into a building and heard cries and pleas suggesting they were raped, he said. The girls' father also heard their screams and, helpless to intervene, wailed that he wanted to kill himself, the witness said.

Several witnesses named a Serbian store clerk in his thirties who they said donned a military uniform, abducted a number of girls to be raped and terrorized ethnic Albanians in his neighborhood.

A 79-year-old woman told interviewers that a month before the NATO bombing started, Serbian police seized a nephew and two other young men near Pristina. She said she later found their mutilated bodies tied to trees. They had been shot, slashed with knives, and their eyes had been gouged out, she said.

At times on this Army Reserve training base, "a great sadness" seems to hang over the refugees, said Brig. Gen. Mitchell M. Zais, commander of the military joint task force that is caring for the Kosovo refugees. At a ceremony on Mother's Day, children were given roses to hand to their mothers, and many began reciting patriotic poetry, he said. The poems, "evoking images of home and family lost," left most of the audience openly weeping, Zais said.

But "generational differences" also are evident in the refugees' adaptation to life here, Zais said. A prime example came last month when two 21-year-old refugees were married in a Muslim wedding ceremony followed by a party that featured music by an Albanian American band, dancing and feasting. The couple, who had been engaged in Kosovo, wore donated clothing, exchanged rings contributed by a jewelry shop and sliced a wedding cake baked by inmates of a federal prison at Fort Dix.

"The young people were dancing and having a good time," Zais said. "But the older people were sitting on the outskirts, looking askance at this frivolous activity while their country was being raped."

While they await processing and assignment to sponsors across the country, the refugees bide their time outside rows of three-story brick barracks that have been turned into dormitories for them. Old men in skullcaps and women in shawls sit at outdoor tables, while children in army T-shirts, baseball caps and other donated clothes play soccer or basketball. The refugees receive a government stipend of $50 for each adult and $20 per child when they arrive, and they have access to a base general store. The biggest sellers include disposable cameras, cosmetics and cigarettes.

One of the most popular pastimes is surfing the Internet in a trailer crammed with a dozen donated iMAC Apple computers. Refugees use them to search for news about their homeland and exchange e-mail with friends who have been sent to other countries.

A clinic staffed by the U.S. Public Health Service checks the refugees for tuberculosis and treats a variety of illnesses. Doctors say the caseload from the refugee population equates to a city of 60,000 people.

So far, three Kosovo women have given birth on the base. The first baby born here, named "Amerikan" by his parents, flew to Dallas last week with 24 family members to live with a relative who offered to sponsor the entire group. All of those admitted to the United States under a Clinton administration pledge to take in as many as 20,000 Kosovo refugees will be eligible to apply for permanent resident status in a year.

Most now say they want only to go home to Kosovo, although the history of such refugee influxes suggests that many will end up staying here. In any case, a longing for their homeland was pervasive when about 200 refugees gathered in a chapel here late last month to hear Scheffer talk about the government's war-crimes work. The ambassador-at-large drew his biggest applause when he promised the United States would do all it could to ensure their safe return to Kosovo.

In questions they put to Scheffer, several refugees expressed skepticism about whether Milosevic or other accused war criminals would ever be brought to justice. But they freely voiced their gratitude for, as one elderly man put it, "saving us from being exterminated from the face of the earth."

For Zais, one of the most touching moments came when he tried to console the son of a woman who had died on the plane trip to the United States. "I'm only sorry my mother didn't live three days longer," the refugee replied, "so she could have experienced the kindness of America."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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