Kosovars petrified of Serbian police

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The Independent Online
A KOSOVO Albanian man with a look of desperation pushed his way through the crowd of refugees and said: "Quick, there's a woman dying here. You've got to help."

The woman was a mother of four who had drunk poisoned water after fleeing into the hills. Given shelter in a nearby house, she lay on the concrete floor under a blanket, rolling her eyes and moaning. Her body was emaciated after weeks without proper food.

The refugees wanted to take her to the nearby town of Glogovac, where there was a doctor. But even though she had been vomiting putrid yellow bile for some days, they were too scared to go through the police checkpoints.

We used a satellite telephone to request a doctor serving with one of the international agencies. A passing ITN crew brought medicines and rehydration salts. The cameraman thought it looked like a case of cholera he had once seen.

Many more refugees were living out in the open. Sitting cross-legged in a field, Adem Bajraktaraj, 84, explained how his extended family of 13 had been on the move for the past three months.

Mr Bajraktaraj was wearing a traditional Kosovar white felt skull cap and peasant sandals. He lent on a gnarled walking stick as he spoke. The women of his family standing behind him were clothed in voluminous Turkish- style trousers which have been worn in this part of the world for hundreds of years.

First, he said, the police had burnt his house in the village of Resnik. After that, the family had kept moving, always trying to keep one step ahead of the security forces. "We came here after these had left," he said, pointing to heavy tracks across the field, which the refugees said had been made by Serbian armoured vehicles.

A single plastic sheet tied over some branches was the only shelter for the old man's family. Like the family of the gravely ill woman, they would do anything rather than risk meeting the security forces.

The bodies of three men caught by the police at a checkpoint were buried nearby, they said. They claimed one had an ear cut off; the other had had his eyes gouged out. The villagers offered to dig up the bodies to show us.

A young refugee boy said three men in his group had come down from their vantage point above an area controlled by the security forces to get water. "The police caught those three and killed them right in front of us," he said.

Another man said that everyone in his group had to pay 200 to 300 German marks each before the police would let them pass. "One was sharpening two knives against each other," the man said. "He told us, 'Have you heard about the policeman who was killed? We're going to kill all of you'."

Serbian officials say the Albanians fabricate atrocity stories. They claim the refugees are fearful of being labelled collaborators by the Kosovo Liberation Army if they try to return to their homes in areas under police control.

In the nearby town of Malisevo, the Serb president of the "Commission for Local Matters", Miodrag Malisic, said he wanted refugees to return to their homes. The Serbian government was determined to do everything possible to help them, he said.

Only those who had broken the law - that is, active members of the KLA - would have "problems", he said.

Mr Bajraktaraj said none of his family had been active in the KLA. But he did not believe official guarantees of safety and he was resigned to spending the winter with his family under their flimsy plastic shelter.

These are some of the 50,000 people President Clinton has said are at risk of freezing or starving to death this winter. Their plight has forced the West into considering either airstrikes or a peace-keeping deployment.

The aid agencies had not reached as far as the windswept field where this group of refugees was sitting, he said. The family was relying on donations of food from villagers nearby. He was not sure how long such charity would last.