He lost his home, hid for a month, then saw his family killed yards from safety

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The Independent Online
THE AVDIU family was only yards from safety when the landmine exploded. Ibrahim Avdiu remembers only a flash, a bang and then the sounds of moaning and screaming from his wife and daughter and the others who were shredded by its blast. Stumbling around in the darkness and the panic, he reached for Zejnete, at 12 his eldest child, and found that she was bleeding heavily from her right leg. His wife, Minire, was wounded in three places but she was to live. Zejnete, and four others, died.

The tragedy unfolded in the early hours of Wednesday at the border between Kosovo and Macedonia. Mr and Mrs Avdiu, Zejnete and their other children - Arta, 10 and seven-year-old twin boys, Arnen and Ardzend - were among a group of 68 people making their way into Macedonia after being forced from their homes by Serb paramilitaries.

Like many before them, they risked going over an unofficial border crossing to avoid being herded into the increasingly overcrowded refugee camps in Macedonia. But it was a gamble that was to cost them dearly.

"We were nearly there," said Mr Avdiu yesterday. "Then an old man in front stood on the mine and it went off. I don't remember much; it was so confusing. There was an explosion and a flash of light.

"Zejnete was bleeding heavily from her right leg but there was nothing we could do. I can't describe the scene to you. It was horrible. I did my best for the other seven who were injured, but we could not stop the bleeding from Zejnete's leg. The nearest town was 20km away. We just had to wait there with the injured in the hope that someone would find us. Eventually, at 8.30am, a Macedonian army patrol came by and got the wounded out of there. But it was too late for my daughter. She bled to death. I am 95 per cent certain she would have lived if we could have found help sooner."

Mr Avdiu was trudging through the hilltop village of Upper Blace where he had just buried Zejnete. Clutching a twin by each hand as his other daughter walked ahead, he looked dishevelled, exhausted and in shock. Neither he nor his children cried; they were too traumatised. In any case, the youngsters had been told that Zejnete was in hospital.

The family had been in hiding for four weeks in an abandoned house in the village of Lanista after being forced from their own home of Kacanik. "We walked for 18 hours to make it to the border," said Mr Avdiu, 39, a builder.

"I have a brother in Skopje and I wanted my family to be able to live with him. I am numb at the moment. I feel in trauma. She was my first born, a happy girl with long blond hair. It hasn't sunk in yet."

Mr Avdiu named three of the other dead as Osman Jezerci, 62, Rabija Kuka, 23 and a 45-year-old man he knew only as Sakip. Mrs Avdiu was described as stable in hospital at Tetovo, an hour outside the capital of Skopje, but some of the others are thought to be in a more serious condition.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) is growing increasingly concerned about the dangers of landmines as more refugees try to avoid the official border at Blace. "When there is a blockage at the border we find people spilling out of Kosovo through other areas," said Paula Ghedini, a UNHCR spokeswoman. "But the whole area is heavily mined and very difficult for us to get to."

Across the valley from Upper Blace, where Mr Avdiu waited for a bus to Skopje, was Lower Blace. From here, Yugoslav forces could be seen, just a few hundred yards away, after shelling the Kosovo village of Rezalce. Ismail Bakdi, a 30-year-old ethnic Albanian farmer, had heard the tanks in the morning and called his wife, Arife, to watch.

"It was her village," he said. "She is from over there and I am from here, but the border never used to matter. We used to go to the same school, the General Jankowic School, and walked to meet each other over the border. She was very upset when she saw her village burning but at least there was no one in it. They left four weeks ago."

At that point, Mr Bakdi stopped speaking, to remon-strate with two Macedonian neighbours who were shouting threats about killing foreign journalists. Outsiders are becoming increasingly unwelcome among the normally hospitable Macedonians, who feel some sympathy with the civilian Serbian population, something that Mr Avdiu will discover when he finds his brother in Skopje.

The capital is only half an hour from the grave where Zejnete was laid to rest with another of the victims, Miradide Kukaj. The graves are in a high, beautiful location overlooking the Sar Planina mountain range. It was bright and clear yesterday and, standing beside the mound of earth that covers her coffin, you could see smoke rising from the rooftops of Rezalce.

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