War In The Balkans: Albanian Border: Pregnant and told to go at gunpoint

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THE WINDOWS of the sporty black Suzuki were misted up and Rabije Citaku looked up nervously as we knocked. "No, no it's fine, really it's OK," she said shyly in response to our offer of a room.

But Easter is not the season to be giving birth outdoors, even in Albania, and so Rabije, whose baby is due today, climbed out of the car and walked slowly over to the pink house we have rented for the refugee season in Kukes.

"It's genocide now, it's state terrorism," her husband, Nehat, said flatly, summing up the situation in Kosovo. We met Rabije and Nehat at the Morini border crossing on Thursday afternoon, 25 hours after they left Pristina, expelled at gunpoint, for the journey to northern Albania - "123 kilometres, I measured," said Nehat, in his accented English.

The couple were travelling with their sons Binar, six, and Baton, four, as well as Rabije's sister Shqipe, her two-week-old daughter, Agona, and her two sons. It was quite a crowd for a small hatchback, but comfort was the least of their worries.

When we bid the family farewell at the border, they were heading for the local hospital in Kukes, the nearest town. But since Rabije was not yet in labour, there were no spare beds.

It was only because Nehat came to our rented house to call his relatives in London on our satellite telephone that we discovered the family's plight - he certainly did not ask for help, and his wife had to be persuaded, firmly, to accept our meagre hospitality.

With nine journalists living in the one-bathroom, three- bedroom house, which doubles as a television, photo and news agency office, space was a little cramped. But luckily we had bought extra camp-beds, just in case. So we packed the two women, four boys and one baby into one room, leaving Nehat to sleep in the car outside.

They refused all sustenance save for some sour cherry juice and a few biscuits for the children - assuring us they had German marks to spare - but gratefully accepted use of the spartan bathroom, which has hot water.

Before bedtime, the women told us that Shqipe had lost track of her husband in Pristina, and that their father had refused to leave his home and was still in the Kosovan capital, his fate unknown.

"We left Pristina because we had to leave Pristina - they gave us about five minutes to leave our houses and said if we didn't do that, we would take a bullet," Nehat, dark-haired and unshaven, had told us at the border. "So we just took some things - we were prepared - for the children, some things to eat, took the car and went in the convoy ... it was special police, I think, with black masks."

The family, like tens of thousands more, were barred from taking the main road south to Macedonia and were sent instead to the wilds of northern Albania.

"I heard that Pristina is an empty city now. I saw a lot of buildings on fire, then a lot of tanks, military, paramilitary forces, everything, just not normal life," said Nehat, an electronics graduate who worked as a car mechanic since Serbian apartheid in Kosovo restricted his job opportunities.

Normality is in short supply in Kukes too, which should be a dusty, sleepy mountain town in the back of beyond, a seven-hour drive from Tirana along hellish, twisting roads. As we settled in the Citaku family, another wave of refugees from the Kosovan countryside arrived, mostly on foot. They were forced to sleep rough, in the freezing wind, in the city square, in schools, the mosque - any space they could find. There are no washing or lavatory facilities - which explains the stench that lingers even outdoors in Kukes.

Somehow, the international aid machine has yet to roll through northern Albania - apparently because the biggest organisations failed to predict that Kosovars would be forced to come here. Underestimating the spite of the Serbian ethnic cleansers, they thought most would stream along the main road to Macedonia, whose capital, Skopje, lies a convenient 15km from the Yugoslav border.

In the first five days, 127,500 refugees crossed the border here in vehicles. Untold thousands more passed on foot. They may be safe now, but thousands are cold, hungry, thirsty and scared.

It is frightening in scale and medieval in its barbarism, yet this is Europe. The press corps encamped in Kukes operates with tiny portable satellite telephones, laptop computers, digital cameras - there are now at least three television satellite trucks in town, which allow stations to broadcast live from the border. And still the world cannot comprehend the scale of this war crime.

"Some of these faces look familiar - is it at all possible that people are walking around and coming back through?" one media executive thousands of miles away asked an incredulous reporter on the ground.

The answer is no, these people are not walking around in circles, the Serbs are actually expelling anyone they can get their hands on. Yugoslav soldiers are even escorting groups of refugees through the mine-fields that surround smaller border points, to ensure the Albanians they so hate and fear continue to leave Kosovo.

"You would not believe this, but our Serb neighbours wanted to take from us a lot of money so we could leave the country safely," Nehat said wryly. "Someone paid DM2,000 (pounds 700) just to go with one car out of Pristina because of Arkan's famous people..."

This last a reference to the Tigers, a bunch of murderous villains led by Zeljko Raznatovic, whose hobby is slaughtering unarmed civilians.

"Too bad, too sad," concluded Nehat. "But I hope it's going to be OK after ... a short time ... maybe ... who knows. We're expecting from the West a lot - air strikes, ground troops."

And then?

"We have to build a life from the beginning. That's it."