It was a sober cluster of refugees who gathered in the dormitory TV room Wednesday night as CNN reported what had been rumored, expected, doubted--frequently all three at once--for days. A teenager with serviceable English translated news of the peace agreement for about 30 of his elders, who gazed quietly at the oversize screen showing images of NATO officials, destroyed buildings and broken bodies in Kosovo. One old woman sobbed.
In Belgrade and in the Kosovar capital of Pristina, they learned, people celebrated the end of the war noisily, cheering and shooting rifles into the night. But on this Army Reserve base, which has served as a temporary haven for more than 4,000 ethnic Albanians hastily airlifted from overcrowded camps in Macedonia, the response was different. "Very serious," said the impromptu interpreter, 14-year-old Gant Prokshi. "Then after the news, people commence with the talking."
Talking has been the prime activity in the refugee village at Fort Dix ever since the first planeloads arrived last month. People assess political developments as they idle under the trees in the grassy commons by the dining hall. They trade gossip along the fence, where they call teary goodbyes to friends boarding vans for exotic-sounding places like Bridgeport.
They still don't fully believe the fighting is over. The Kosovars, despite the appearance of normality in their donated shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops, have endured experiences that cause profound skepticism. "I learned that Milosevic is a liar," shrugged Gani Ismajli, a 36-year-old cook sitting outdoors with his wife, Florie. He rolled up one sleeve to show a raw-looking bullet wound in his left biceps, one of three he received from Serbian police in March. "When I see with my eyes NATO troops in Kosovo, the American flag in Kosovo, then I will believe."
But discussions of the future, hopeful and mistrustful, bubble and simmer anyway. More than a thousand Kosovars have already moved on from Fort Dix, as agencies resettle more each day in communities around the country; 65 left this morning for Phoenix, Nashville, Salt Lake City. Those still waiting find--despite the English classes, the prayer services and the blue shuttle bus that allows visits to friends in other parts of the village--that there is otherwise not a great deal to do on these long summery days. There is, however, suddenly a great deal to think about.
The hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees still sweltering and suffering in Macedonia are likely to be repatriated as soon as their reluctant host government can decently shoo them home. Some who were taken in by more than two dozen other countries around the world, depending on those nations' laws and policies, may also be required to go back.
But those flown to the United States face a real decision, and a stark one: Though they're being dispersed to communities around the country, they'll be free to return to Kosovo once the province is secure. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala herself assured them, when she visited here last week, that the United States would pay their airfare home. But they can also choose to remain in this country. Their refugee status gives them immediate access to work and to a variety of social services; they can apply for permanent resident status after a year and for citizenship after five.
Home--which in Kosovo may mean a dwelling that was built, brick by brick, by one's family generations back--exerts a magnetic force. "We have a saying: Our graves are there," explained Checher Hyseni, 57. His son and his brother were both killed this spring. "I'd like to bury myself there, too."
Aida Sopi, a 19-year-old philosophy student at the University of Pristina, was sitting on a blanket with some friends and eating an apple, the picture of beautiful, carefree youth. A deceptive image. "I just cry," Sopi said in careful English. "I imagine Pristina, nothing else. How it would be if I was in Pristina. Just to go back and see my friends at the university. Nothing else." So her choice is hardly a choice. "We'll be back. Absolutely."
But Fatime Sherifi, a 34-year-old cosmetician who used to run a beauty parlor on the ground floor of her family's Pristina home, was less certain. "I always loved this country; I wanted to be part of it," she said through an interpreter--and she meant the United States, not Kosovo. "Even though this was unusual circumstances, we made it to America." To live here with her extended family, to open a small salon in Philadelphia or Houston or any place she's resettled, "that would be a dream."
People with long histories of working with refugees are not surprised. "Ambivalence is a key word here," says Roy Williams, director of foreign disaster assistance for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "Return is complicated, for many reasons." Those waiting for news in southern New Jersey "are in relatively comfortable circumstances, certainly they're safe, and they can most afford to wait and see what happens. . . . I don't think they'll be rushing pell-mell to go back."
The pressures and pulls in both directions, all directions, are intense. People weep when they talk about the relatives they have been separated from, the houses they saw burned, their uncertainty in this generous but unfamiliar land.
And what about the children? If they're away from their homeland for months, will they become distressingly alienated from their Albanian culture, more and more like the American kids they already resemble? The staff at the Internet Access Trailer has removed the video games from the 12 candy-colored iMac computers donated by Apple; the trailer, intended to allow residents to search for relatives through an International Red Cross refugee database or watch newscasts from Albanian television, was in danger of becoming a kids' arcade.
It worries the Ismajlis, who fled with their 13-year-old daughter and two sons, aged 16 and 9. "My children will start to learn English and forget our language, their nationality, their people," Gani Ismajli says.
Yet ethnic Albanian children suffered in Kosovo, even before the most recent expulsions. The Serbs closed their schools, which led to an underground network of schools in private homes--including the Ismajlis'. Those substitutes were not secure either: The one where Fatime Sherifi sent her children was raided. "In the schoolyard, the military police threw a tear gas grenade," she reported matter-of-factly. "The parents rushed to grab the children out of there." A few weeks later, the family made for the border.
Moreover, though no one knows just what conditions they will find if they return to Kosovo, they expect a desolate landscape--and they're probably correct. "There are likely large numbers of land mines and unexploded bombs," says Bob Carey, vice president for settlement of the International Rescue Committee. The economy was dismal before the bombing; many Albanians had been forced from their jobs. Now, Carey says, "there's very little infrastructure in the way of water, food, housing, transportation. We're at least a couple of weeks away--at the most optimistic--from even assessing the conditions."
Even those most adamant about returning concede that they will wait for the province to be "pacified" and secure, for the rebuilding and relief that, they are confident, the United States and its allies will undertake. But no one knows how long a process that will be, and the cost estimates are staggering. Besim Gashi, a former movie theater worker who saw his home burned, thinks he may have to stay here for two or three years, earning money and waiting for conditions at home to improve. He sits with his friend Abedin Bucolli, a onetime security guard who feels similarly uncertain; sorrow furrows their faces.
"It would be terribly difficult to restart a life there," is Fatime Sherifi's assessment. "It's not starting from zero. It's starting below that." She's referring not only to economics. "It's the state of mind. . . . Hope is a foreign word."
The expulsion of nearly a million Albanian residents of Kosovo is a unique situation, Roy Williams says. Typically, refugees flee at random, clogging the roads, trying to escape violence. In Kosovo, "the whole thing was stage-managed, a military force was moving populations around, going to the trouble of destroying people's documents to make return more difficult," Williams says. "It was done very systematically."
A high proportion of the refugees here have experienced or witnessed violence, the children not excluded. They saw mutilated corpses along the roadside, saw beatings and gassings, bombings and blood. Some families like Besim Gashi's have been twice displaced: They retreated into the mountains for several months last year as Serb repression intensified, living in a foxhole with little food or water. They came back down in the fall, when it appeared that Slobodan Milosevic would agree to change his policies, and began planting and rebuilding--only to be ousted this spring.
In Macedonia, says Sebahate Mehmeti, an economics student, refugees were beaten by camp guards, sometimes to death. "I witnessed a case where a man stayed three days, dead, by a truck," she says. "His friends were not allowed to carry him away."
As a result, despite the low-key recountings of such stories, this is considered a traumatized population. "They're aware that they're very vulnerable to manipulation," Williams says. "And their distrust of the people who did it is deep."
The incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder is always high among refugees, notes Dawn Noggle, a Phoenix psychologist who has developed a mental health checklist in several languages to help resettlement agencies recognize the problem. But the symptoms--which can include sleeplessness, anxiety, "intrusive thoughts" of past horrors, a desire to die--are even more severe when a trauma is man-made. Ethnic cleansing is a more intense assault than flood or famine. "These kinds of conflicts provoke a sense of 'How is it possible that a human being like me can commit such atrocities?' " Noggle says. "It destroys our faith in humanity."
Refugees often demonstrate astonishing resilience, of course. "They miss their country and their culture and they're scared to death--but they want to pick up the pieces," says Margaret Burkhardt, a representative of the Joint Voluntary Agency, which has been processing the Fort Dix refugees. But how many of the Kosovars will return as they vow, and how many will find America more attractive than they expect, is not clear yet. Some may see their months of waiting for the right moment to go home turning, unintentionally, into years.
No such uncertainty for Gant Prokshi, the 14-year-old translator, however. He is a computer geek--a term he had not previously known but accepted with a grin--from Pristina who credits his reasonable proficiency in English to watching Jay Leno via satellite.
Halfway to American teenhood already, Gant somehow knew that the brim of his baseball cap should be turned backward, that his shorts should be three sizes too large. A reader of Hemingway and a fan of "the Bittles," he was already itching a year ago to finish high school in the United States--he has relatives in the Bronx--and then to study computer science in an American college.
"Old people, they will go back," he explains. "My father tells me he doesn't feel himself here," as he does in Kosovo. Even Gant expects to return someday, when he is a prosperous programmer. "In my heart, I have my country."
But for now, he's hoping to be resettled in a smallish town at first--"to go somewhere friendly, to learn this life"--and then head like a rocket for New York. "U.S.A. conditions are famous," he announces, all confidence. "You can have a building"--a home, he means--"have a job, have money, be a rich man. . . . People in the camp say they will go back. But when they leave camp and see, they will never go back."
CAPTION: "When I see with my eyes NATO troops in Kosovo, the American flag in Kosovo, then I will believe," says refugee Gani Ismajli, above, a bullet wound visible on his arm, and his wife, Florie, in the background. Xhemile Beqiri, top, and grandson Liridon, 8, seem more optimistic about the prospect of peace.
CAPTION: Children at Fort Dix chase after a woman in a golf cart bringing a bag of soccer balls.
CAPTION: Passing time: the Beqiri family--Asllan, Sevoije, Sadik and Kumrui (knitting); and three young refugees--Arsim Abdullahu, Vllaznim Zyumeri and Sejdi Grijcerci, below, in the computer room.