For Refugees, Home 'Looks Like a Dream' |
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 21, 1999; Page A14
BLACE, Yugoslavia – Halil and Fatime Hoxha walked through their front gate after living as refugees for almost three months and were crestfallen. The house, like so many others they had passed during the six-hour tractor ride home, was a shell, everything of value taken, everything flammable a charred heap.
A neighbor who had remained during the war came by to greet them. Unkempt and despondent, he was the picture of a broken man.
"We are suffering too much," he sobbed. "Go here! Go there! Don't stay here or there. They killed so many. Sometimes we couldn't find the body, just the head. There is no country in the world like this."
Halil tried to soothe him. "You don't have to worry, you have your two sons," he said. "Look, I don't even have a home. You have your cellar. You can stay there."
Halil climbed back to the seat of his tractor, a sky-blue Rakovica with two trailers towing 23 people from four families. They had lived together in Kukes, Albania – three weeks in a field under plastic sheets, eight weeks in a two-room apartment – and he was honor bound to take them home.
They were among the tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees returning to Kosovo in recent days after fleeing a brutal campaign by Serbian military and police in Yugoslavia that included torching homes, rounding up and murdering civilians, and finally pushing 860,000 out of the country.
Unable to resist the pull of a homeland now under NATO control and largely free of Serbs, about 130,000 people have returned to Kosovo in the last five days, refugee officials said, and the pace is building. About 29,000 streamed home from Albania and Macedonia on Saturday, and about 30,000 Sunday. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
The refugees are uncertain what they will find, scared of land mines and booby traps, and worried about how they will rebuild their lives. But they say they can cope with the physical hardships now that they are free from the daily terror of living under the Serbian regime.
"The main thing is we have our health," said Fatime Hoxha. "We all survived."
The tractor rumbled down the road six miles to the next stop, Banja, a small farming community about 18 miles north of Prizren. Ali and Vahide Shala, both 54, knew that their house was still standing, but they could not talk about their son without crying.
The last time they had seen him was in late March, just days after the NATO bombing campaign began. Serbian army soldiers firing grenades and mortars had pushed thousands of residents from several villages into an area around Belanica and were closing in.
Ali grabbed Enver, 17, by the arm. "They will kill you. If they kill me, it doesn't matter. I am an old man. But you have to go! GO!" Enver scrambled up a grassy field with about 500 young men and darted into some woods.
Rumor was that Enver had hooked up with a unit from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group, doing menial labor such as chopping wood, but his mother was skeptical. "I won't believe he's okay until I see him with my own eyes," she said.
They entered town and drove by the school – burned. The post office – burned. House after house was destroyed.
They finally arrived at their modest one-story, two-room house, which the Serbs had used as a lookout post because of its position on a hill.
Ali charged inside, and suddenly other relatives emerged. As Vahide slowly made her way down the walk, stopping to hug and kiss several people along the way, a young man leapt through the doorway and embraced her, burying his head deep in her neck. She clutched him and whimpered, as others stood by and smiled. Her son was okay.
About 15 women from the family – sisters, cousins and in-laws – moved into the garden, exchanging news and tearful greetings. "Don't cry now," someone told Vahide. "The war is over."
Inside, Ali walked through his home like a man seeing it for the first time. Friends and family had cleaned it up, laid a new blue carpet, put colorful tapestries over the mattresses on the floor, propped pillows against the wall.
Ali stepped to the window and surveyed his back yard, then wheeled around.
"It looks like a dream!" he yelled, his eyes watering.
A dozen men came into the room and plopped themselves down on the mattresses. An AK-47 assault rifle was leaning against the wall behind the door. Boxes stamped "USAID," "UNICEF" and "Red Cross" were stacked in the corner.
Ali walked around the room, handing out cigarettes. The women brought in tiny cups of thick Turkish coffee. He sat next to a window with his son. Burned houses, their red tile roofs collapsed atop charred timbers, were scattered on the horizon.
Ali's older brother, Fazli Shala, 65, sat down and gave the news: Everybody in the family was safe, but the Serbs destroyed his house and business. Six families with almost 100 people – all relatives – were living in Ali's two-room home and in the four-room home next door. The two houses share a garden.
A 15-year-old boy from town was killed by a booby-trapped door. The KLA had cleared his house by tying long ropes to the doors and jerking them open from a distance.
Fazli said he would soon move to a tent in his garden.
"Everywhere in the world there is fighting between armies and soldiers, but there isn't this killing of civilians and torture," he said. "We didn't attack anyone. We just lived on our land."
"We cannot celebrate when so many other families lost someone," Ali said. "We'll wait until we have our own president. Then the whole country will celebrate, not just our family."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company