War in the Balkans: Refugees - Busiest men in camps are grave- diggers

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The Independent Online
THERE IS nothing on Flaka Shala's grave to indicate her age, but judging by its length she was no more than two years old. It lies with the graves of nine other children in a muddy cemetery in Kukes and stands out only because of the orange sweet that a visitor - perhaps one of her parents - has placed on it.

Next to her grave lies Kreshnik Loshi from Drenica. On his plywood marker someone has written: 1/10/97 - 16/4/99.

They are among 53 Kosovo refugees who have been buried at this Albanian town in recent weeks. The lone grave-digger used to inter about four people a month, but now there are four diggers who say they are putting up to seven Kosovars in the ground each day.

Concern is mounting for the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians still trapped inside Kosovo, hiding in the mountains or in forests. But death also stalks those who have escaped across the border - the old, the young, the malnourished and the demoralised forced to live in cramped rooms or rain-soaked tents in mud-locked camps.

Yesterday, it took Halit Bajram Cocaj, a 68-year-old Kosovar from Gjonaj, near Prizren. His heart failed him in the morning, and by lunchtime he was in his grave. It lies away from the children's plot, one of dozens pointing towards Mecca.

Twenty-four men, friends and family, brought his plywood coffin with its hardboard lid to the cemetery in a van. They laid the box on a brick and concrete catafalque, removed the coffin lid and took the shroud from his face, filing past one by one and placing a hand over it.

Like those of all the Kosovars who lie here, his coffin was lowered on to a bed of wood or black cement and covered by planks to keep the soil from touching the lid.

The reason for this is simple: the families of the dead intend to come back for their removal to a final resting place in Kosovo. Before the soil went in, Halit Cocaj's name was scribbled on a piece of paper, stuffed inside a Coca-Cola bottle and thrown inside as a means of identification that will not rot.

"He was a good man who would have lived longer than this," said Iljaz Dervish Hoxha, the mullah who laid him to rest. "He had married for a second time and had two children, one two years old and the other just five months. But they were forced to live in a house with 100 other people, paying 1,000 deutschmarks a month. The bad conditions killed him."

He was among thousands of people forced out of their homes from the Prizren region, many of whom remain unaccounted for.

Those who made it to this part of Albania are living in increasingly intolerable conditions, exposed daily to wind and rain, living on cold diets of bread, beans and tinned fish.

"I have buried 36 people with my own hands since we arrived from Kosovo, but more have died in the smaller villages around this area," said Mr Hoxha. "On the way here, children have been exposed to cold, they slept in tractors and suffered from malnutrition. I, myself, have buried four."

The burial business is, indeed, booming. In her stonemason's workshop, Have Bilalli has been working flat out to cast the black cement slabs on which the coffins are laid in their graves. "We are working day and night," she said. "The municipality is paying for the graves at the moment. Many of the Kosovars are dying here.

"It is our custom to wait one year before putting a headstone on the grave - they cost 25,000 lek [pounds 113] each - but I don't expect any commissions from the Kosovars. They want to take their dead home."

Eqrem Hoti, 36, is among those who will not be ordering a headstone from Mrs Bilalli. Before he arrived in Kosovo, he buried his brother Fahredin, 46, and his nephew Kreshnik 14, who were killed by the Serbs. He escaped to Kukes from his village near Prizren with his parents, but his father, Shemsedin, 67, died from the effort of the journey.

Mr Hoti was at his father's graveside yesterday. It has no markings but Mr Hoti has painstakingly spelt out his father's name in pebbles stuck into the mound of earth that covers it. "When this is over, I will take him home," he said.

For the moment, however, he has other things on his mind - he must wait for the wife and three children from whom he is separated by the Serbs. They are still trapped inside Kosovo, an agonising state of affairs that leaves him grieving for the living and the dead.