War In Europe: Fleeing Kosovars revive spirit of nationalism

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT TAKES a few moments to work out what is strange about Nurish Zwiapi's house, for, from the outside at least, there is nothing unusual about it at all.

From here, a suburb of the Macedonian town of Tetovo, the border with Kosovo is only 10 miles away. A week ago the whole area was in turmoil, as tens of thousands of fleeing refugees floundered in a morass of mud and squalor. The Serbian army has been active laying mines since then, and on Thursday night a Macedonian soldier was shot dead in a mysterious border incident.

But in Mr Zwiapi's front yard, nothing stirs. A cat stretches in the spring sunshine; a pile of mattresses has been hung out to air. And it is then that you notice the shoes. There they are, neatly lined up - on the front steps, inside the porch, and under the eaves. Babies' shoes, children's shoes, teenagers' trainers, a man's boots, and women's heels - 23 pairs of them altogether.

Mr Zwiapi is an elderly housepainter, and lives modestly on an income of 200 Deutschmarks (pounds 71) a month. But for the past 10 days he has been supporting a family of 16 - his own wife and three children, plus three generations of Kosovar Albanian refugees. Eleven homeless Kosovars are living with the Zwiapis - a few days ago there were 28 of them here. Many of his neighbours have taken in similar numbers - you hear of families looking after 30 or even 50 people.

Television pictures and photographs in the past week have concentrated almost exclusively on the refugee camps, constructed in Macedonia by British and other Nato troops. But they cater to only a minority of those driven out by Slobodan Milosevic. The heaviest burden in this crisis is borne not by the international agencies and donor governments, but by people like Mr Zwiapi, providing shelter, food and friendship to complete strangers out of their own pockets.

Since the Serbian military suspended its ethnic cleansing of the Kosovars, the flood of refugees over the border has dwindled to a trickle. But according to the UNHCR, 125,000 managed to escape during the past three weeks, and 105,000 of them are still in Macedonia. Of those, fewer than half are in refugee camps; the remaining 60,000 are staying with families, the majority of them Macedonians of Albanian ethnicity. In the Tetovo area, where Macedonia's Albanian population is concentrated, there are 30,000 refugees, a rise in the local population of about 15 per cent.

According to Qatip Besimi, secretary of the local branch of the Red Cross, 95 per cent live with families, whose resources are being stretched to the limit by the burden. "These are not rich people, and many of them don't have enough employment," he says, in an office crowded with homeless Kosovars. "They need help themselves, but it is they who are giving the help. Stocks of food will soon be exhausted and if the situation is not addressed soon, I predict epidemics - a collapse."

Mr Besimi's list of urgent needs includes bread, nappies, baby food, clothes and drugs. Apart from loaves and blankets provided by a German medical charity, and 18,000 more blankets supplied by the UNHCR, Mr Besimi has received nothing. He blames both the International Red Cross and the UNHCR for disorganisation and for failing to understand the gravity of the situation on the ground.

Twelve trucks from Turkey arrived in Macedonia yesterday, carrying pounds 200,000 worth of food provided by British Muslims, including Yusuf Islam, better known as the pop star Cat Stevens. But El Hilal, a Muslim organisation co-ordinating support among local people, claims that the Macedonian government has inexplicably held up deliveries of aid destined for the Tetovo area. Publicly, aid officials are reluctant to speculate on the reasons for this. But Paluwan Mulaki, who fled Kosovo to find himself living with Mr Zwiapi, has no doubt. "The Macedonian authorities, especially the police at the border - they treated us so badly," he said. "They acted like Serbs."

In the long term - beyond the immediate plight of the refugees and their compatriots still trapped inside Kosovo - this is the most alarming aspect of the situation in Macedonia. The plight of the fugitive Kosovars has brought out in their fellow Albanians here a staggering warmth and generosity. But the response feeds off and nourishes a sentiment which is deeply alarming to Macedonia's Orthodox Christian majority - a growing sense of pan-Albanian nationalism.

Only 3.3 million of those who regard themselves as Albanian live in Albania itself. The remaining 2.4 million are in Macedonia and Kosovo. The prospect of a resurgent "Greater Albania" alarms governments throughout Europe, but, emotionally as well as geographically, the refugee crisis has brought them together as never before, just as it has alienated them from the rest of the Macedonian population.

"These are our people, and we will help as many of them as need us for as long as is necessary," said Mr Zwiapi. "We'll take care of them even when we are down to bread and salt." Above him on the wall hangs a flag - not the Macedonian flag, but the two-headed black eagle of Albania.