War In The Balkans: Refugees - Camps boil with anger at `traitors' in their midst

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The Independent Online
IT WAS the kind of scene that foreign aid workers in Macedonia's hot and angry aid camps have dreaded, and which provides an alarming portent of Kosovo's future when the refugees go home.

On Saturday night, hundreds of Albanians, armed with clubs and faces distorted with fury, set on a family of gypsies in the camp at Stenkovec 1 and almost tore them limb from limb.

A seven-year-old boy was rescued by the timely and forthright intervention of an aid worker, who dived into the crowd, shouting "no, no, no".

The family was attacked because - in the eyes of their assailants - they were quislings - agents and also beneficiaries of the Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Rightly or wrongly they were thought to belong to the teams of marauders who have swept through the villages of Kosovo in the wake of the Serbian army and paramilitaries, looting the possessions from the deserted houses and stacking the wares high on their wagons.

The savagery at Stenkovec 1 is an example of the climate of hatred and retribution created by the recent history of Kosovo and it gives a disturbing glimpse of what Nato troops may confront when they go into the province and escort hundreds of thousands of Albanians back to their ruined villages.

Nato may offer guarantees to Kosovo's Serbs and gypsies - 10 and 2 per cent per cent of the pre-conflict population of 1.8 million respectively. The fact is that scores are going to be settled whatever the alliance says and there is no way that Nato troops can sit on every doorstep and prevent them. The likely outcome is either the mass migration of Kosovo's Serbs and gypsies in the next few weeks or a rash of murders in outlying villages.

The attack on the gypsy family at the Macedonian camp casts light on the tangled web of ethnic alliances in the Balkans. Although gypsies are despised and persecuted in most countries of central and eastern Europe, in Yugoslavia they were allies of the dominant Serbs in their conflicts with Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosnians and now Kosovars. Much of the animosity dates back to the Second World War. Both gypsies and Serbs were victims of Yugoslavia's Nazi invaders while many Croats and Albanians were Germany's allies.

Refugees fleeing Kosovo have repeatedly claimed that gypsies joined the Serbs in killing Albanians in Kosovo and looting their homes. And young Kosovar men in the camps talk openly of the revenge they will take not just on Serbs but on gypsies too when they return home.

The events leading to the attack at the weekend began when an Albanian refugee said he recognised a piece of jewellery that once belonged to his mother round the neck of the gypsy family's 17-year-old son. The Albanian refugee told anyone who cared to listen that gypsies had killed his father and then robbed his mother.

After the attack, the family were taken to a building belonging to an aid agency, the Catholic Relief Service. While attempts were being made to take them to hospital a second wave of refugees stormed the building and attacked them again. They were pushed out but soon a crowd of 200 men gathered outside the building, chanting and screaming and demanding that the gypsies should be handed over to them.

Aid workers went to the gypsy family's tent to try and protect the mother and three younger children. But they were set on by another crowd of Albanians, who grabbed one of the children, a seven-year-old boy. Aid workers managed to get the family to safety but gangs of Kosovo Albanians began hunting the other gypsies in the camp.

Order was restored only when Macedonian riot police intervened and Christopher Hill, the US ambassador to Macedonia, addressed the crowd at midnight. The ambassador promised that their claims would be investigated and that justice would be done.

Ed Joseph, of the Catholic Relief Service, said the attack on the 17- year-old was a terrifying experience. "The look in their eyes when they tried to tear this boy's arms out - there was just fire in their eyes. I was just grabbing them and shouting to leave him alone."

Paula Gadhini, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said: "They were bad injuries. One man's face was the colour of an eggplant [aubergine] and his eyes were swollen shut. The other had been beaten with a stick and had a very large wound on his head. It was very clear that if they had been caught, they would have been killed."

Kosovar refugees want Nato to arrest gypsies whom they accuse of crimes in Kosovo. The alliance is reluctant to get involved in such obscure and impenetrable conflicts, but senior officers acknowledge that they will have to face many such thorny dilemmas if and when they go into Kosovo.

Following the attack on the gypsy family at Stenkovec 1 there was little evidence of contrition among the Kosovars. One refugee, Murad Hashi, said: "How do you think we feel when we see these people who have robbed and murdered in Kosovo now being among us? It is natural to feel this anger. The only way to prevent it is to try them over here or internationally."