March 4, 1999

A Plight Known to Ernest Hemingway

By Don North

In October, diplomacy and the threat of NATO air strikes averted an impending humanitarian disaster by allowing between 400,000 and 500,000 Kosovar refugees to return home for the winter.

Since then, they have been living in makeshift barns and tool sheds near their fire-gutted homes or crammed 30 to a room with relatives whose homes are still intact.

Albanians are a clannish society, like the Scots, and when relatives are burned out of their homes, they move into homes already bursting at the seams. Meager food supplies are shared.

The Racak massacre and the escalating fighting have worsened the refugee situation dramatically. Sadako Ogata, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said about 3,500 ethnic Albanians fled the area near the massacre.

An estimated 1,000 refugees were reported to have taken refuge in nearby woods in freezing weather. Mrs. Ogata said she knew of two babies who died in the freezing conditions.

"Now we are again seeing people in the hundreds encamped in the woods," she said. "A new upsurge of violence will undermine what we have accomplished to date."

Another choice for Albanian Kosovars is not appealing either: a treacherous escape across Kosovo's borders. Last September, Montenegro, which together with Serbia and Kosovo makes up what is left of Yugoslavia, closed its borders to refugees from Kosovo.

Albania is still an option as a gateway to the West. But many ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo have found the near anarchy, crime and poverty in Albania impossible to live with.

Thousands have gone on to risk cold, wet and dangerous landings at night on Italy’s southern shores. According to the United Nations, 81,000 Albanian Kosovars have asked for political asylum in Western Europe since the fighting began.

To get to Italy, however, the refugees must pay sea smugglers called "scafisti" $1,000 a head. The smugglers often load bales of marijuana or hashish into the same rubber boats with the refugees.

When Italian police boats race after them, the "scafisti" have been known to escape by throwing children into the water to divert pursuing police. Even without police chases, refugees are unloaded far offshore and must swim and wade through often rough seas.

For the majority of refugees still in Kosovo -- an estimated one-quarter of the province’s two million ethnic Albanians -- Pentagon planners have made contingency plans to air drop emergency aid as they once did in Bosnia.

But another killer could be what one aid worker in Prestina called "compassion fatigue." She said, "Donor individuals and governments are getting tired of what they see as the world’s failure to find a political solution to the refugee problems.”

In journalism school, I remember studying a report by Ernest Hemingway, who in October 1922 covered the Greek-Turkish war for the Toronto Star. Hemingway described the flight of Greek refugees as the Turkish forces closed in on Constantinople.

"In a never ending staggering march, the population of Thrace is jamming the roads to Macedonia. Twenty miles of carts drawn by cows, bullocks and water buffalo, with exhausted, staggering men, women and children, blankets over their heads, walking blindly along in the rain beside all their worldly goods."

Now, 77 years later, not far from the scene of Hemingway's story, the same description could apply to the Kosovo refugees.

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