Land where the fortunate sleep nine to a small tent :WAR IN THE BALKANS

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The Independent Online
THESE WERE Kosovo's lucky ones. There was Dren Caka, 11, in the crumbling military hospital, 19 of his family dead and a bullet hole in his arm. There was Sali Sikha, lying with his wife and nine children in a derelict sports hall.

There was 70-year-old Zymryte Rexhepi, living with 11 others in a tent beside a disused swimming-pool.

And there was Dashamir Povataj, once an English teacher, sharing a cell with 30 others in an abandoned mental hospital.

The word "lucky" was their own. Such is the measure of the barbarities they endured in Kosovo that life in an Albanian tent, mental hospital, or sports hall is preferable to the dangers they faced under the Serbs. As an option, it did, after all, include the word "life".

After the mystery of no man's land in Macedonia, this is where the refugees have been coming. The numbers are out of date as soon as they are published, but 306,000 Kosovo Albanians are thought to have been given refuge in Albania so far.

Aside from Kukes, on the northern border, where more than 120,000 Kosovars crossed the frontier, Tirana has played host to most of the dispossessed.

The setting is quite surreal. On the northern edges of the the Albanian capital, in the shadow of the Dajti mountains, thousands have been deposited in military tents on the site of three open-air swimming- pools.

Surrounded by grey, post-Stalinesque architecture from the days of Albania's former Maoist dictator Enver Hoxha, they gather several times a day beneath an Olympic diving platform to listen to Contact Radio played through Klaxon speakers.

With the tents, the (empty) pools and the playful screams of children, there is an air here of a muddy holiday camp. But the illusion is shattered when the radio announcer reads out a list, not of the day's events, but of missing people.

In Tent 95 is Vymryte Rexhepi, a bright old woman with a toothless grin. It feels embarrassing to intrude on her space - if sharing a tent with three daughters-in-law and five children can be called that. "This isn't so bad," said Mrs Rexhepi. We have food and we are alive, that is the main thing. Soon the men will come back and, when Nato has driven the Serbs out of Kosovo, we will go and we build our home."

It was a common theme among the refugees. Everyone wanted to go home as soon as possible. And there were no complaints.

"Life is sweet," said Dashamir Povataj, 36, a school teacher from the Decani region. He saw his home torched and, while escaping said he witnessed the massacre of 70 men from the neighbouring village of Lybenic.

Now he, his wife and their six children live with 22 others in a cell in a disused mental hospital - or will do, as soon as his wife and two of the children, in the city hospital, recover from hypothermia .

"The main thing is that we are alive," he said. "We don't want to stay here long. Most of us have seen our homes destroyed but we believe, with foreign help, we can rebuild our towns once the Serbs are gone. It will take time but we can do it."

The refugees are camped cheek by jowl on mattresses in municipal buildings. They eat mainly bread and pasta and beans. In the Pallate Di Sportit, a basket-ball stadium named after a national sporting hero, Asllan Rusi, up to 1,800 people have been passing through each night.

When the time comes to sleep, most of them sit down with their blankets on wooden spectator seats and try to close their eyes, sitting bolt upright.

Some Albanian families have taken in refugees, usually friends or relatives. Others, who have taken in complete strangers, are in the minority, usually wealthy people, because Kosovo families tend to be extended - take in one and you end up taking 15.

Albania has responded magnificently to the crisis but the novelty of being the kindest nation on earth will soon wear off. There has traditionally been a degree of envy among Albanians of Kosovars, who enjoyed a higher standard of living in Yugoslavia.

It remains to be seen how welcoming they will be if forced to endure the burden for any length of time.

"There is a general consensus among Western governments that a country as poor as Albania should not have to carry this burden alone," said Heather Hill, spokeswoman for the United Nation's World Food Programme.

"We made an appeal to governments for enough money to feed 650,000 people for three months - that's $24m (pounds 15m) - and we got it immediately.

"But if the situation were to last longer, if the people were not able to go home, then money would have to be made available to improve the infrastructure of the country."

The arguments meant nothing to another refugee, Sali Cikha.

He, his wife, Shemie, and their nine children were lying with hundreds of others on camp-beds underneath the vast barrelled ceiling of a derelict volley-ball hall.

There was green polythene over the broken windows and exposed sides of the hall to keep out the wind and rain, but there were no other comforts. Yet they were all laughing and playing. "I am a baker," said Mr Cikha. "People will always need bread. Soon we will go home again and I will bake bread for my neighbours just like I used to."