A safe haven in Saffron Walden

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be hard to find a town more thoroughly quaint than Saffron Walden, full as it is of bow windows, weatherboarding, antique shops, winding back alleys. It is not an obvious setting for 171 Albanians. And yet here they are: creatures from another, harsher world, dropped into Middle England in all its calendar picturesqueness, courtesy of fate and Stansted airport.

The strangeness of it all is still sinking in. It seemed fairly strange, of course, to the Albanians when they first landed, having fled from events in Kosovo, a Serb-dominated but originally Albanian segment of Yugoslavia. Several of them, seeing signs saying 'Stansted, London', peered out at the mists of autumnal Essex when they landed, and were puzzled by how countrified the capital seemed.

That was two weeks ago, and they have since been enlightened, but the housing department of the local council is still amazed by the unexpected turn of events. 'No, sorry, there's two Gashis,' says a young woman down her telephone. She giggles in a fit of hysterical disbelief. '. . . whatever Muslims don't eat. I don't know. Pork, I think.'

More giggles. Small unhelpful yellow Serbo-Croat dictionaries lie on her desk, offering no aid on the word 'refugee', but giving a full rendering of the phrase 'His Royal Highness'.

Not far away, in Bishop's Stortford, Mrs Morgan, who is boarding two refugee families in her bed-and-breakfast for the council, is equally bemused. 'They're lovely people,' she says. 'They really like poached eggs. I've had to have my breakfast menu translated into Serbo-Croat.'

On one of her plump sofas sits Krasniqi Idris, a man in his thirties whose wife may be pregnant. He is struggling with a list of English phrases. 'Serbia terror,' he says. 'They kill one of my friends.' He scribbles a picture. 'Axe,' he says. 'Yes. Kill with an axe in the head. I be like stay over here. Is good.'

All 171 are applying for political asylum. The Conservative district council of Uttlesford is making noises about the strain on its budget. At any moment, it fears, more planeloads may touch down at Stansted, eating up local funds. They should go elsewhere, the council believes - for their own good, of course. 'They should go to parts of the country where their needs will be best met,' a spokesman says. 'I don't mind refugees coming into the country. But we haven't a mosque here. It's not fair on them.'

How big the local expense really is is hard to evaluate. Of the 171 at least 26 have already moved on. About 21 families remain, but many of the rest are single men between 18 and 30, or childless couples, whom the council has no responsibility to house - for this is essentially an exodus of young men.

In the old White Horse, in the beamy centre of Saffron Walden, opinion

on this matter is divided. Chris, the

barman, is understandably worried about the effect that the hordes of Albanians may have on his place in the 1,000-long queue for a council house.

'Send them back,' say some of his customers, 'charity begins at home.' All are prepared to keep the children, but only one or two say they are much in favour of Saffron Walden's new enclave.

A street away, in a bed-and-breakfast establishment, Nebi Shehi is playing with one of the children, his one-year- old son, Ilir. 'Nothing,' he says, stretching out his hands. 'We had nothing. Serb terror.' He had been in the navy for 11 years before the war began. Then he had gone back to Kosovo.

Next to him is Rahadan Kestrati, with his wife and seven-year-old son. He had been a policeman. 'Serbs say - from our house - out,' he says. Naemi Berisha shows a scar on his head. 'From Serbian police,' he says simply.

They escaped, they explained, with a great deal of miming and sketching, by night through back roads from their country into Macedonia, to the airport at Skopje, evading Serbian security checkpoints on the way. Their children, hearing fear in their parents' voices, cried as they drove through the darkness. A few managed to bring out suitcases.

Zejnije, 34, with better English than the rest, leans forward. She escaped with her husband and two children, aged 10 and four. 'All these men,' she says, gesturing round the cosy room, 'have papers from the Serbian government to go to war. They must leave the country or kill Croatians or Muslims, and be killed themselves.'

'At home we have no jobs, no rights, nothing,' says Zejnije. 'When we came to the airport we were frightened. They kept us, four or five hours. Everyone was friendly, they brought sweets for the children, but we thought they might send us back. Then they took us to a big sports hall. We were thinking then, we will be safe now. People were kind and gentle. They gave us food and drink. All the people from Saffron Walden came in and gave us clothes.'

The closure of the Lord Butler Leisure Centre was the first most residents knew of what had happened. The council housed the influx there under its disaster plans, which, fortuitously,

it had been rehearsing the Sunday before.

Saffron Walden and its environs rallied round in a manner hardly seen since 1945. Camp beds were laid out

in rows. Hot drinks were brewed. 'There's been tears as well as laughter,' says Liz Petrie, one of the housing officers involved from the beginning. 'They seemed to have lost such

a lot.'

In the back sitting-room of the bed- and-breakfast home, Zejnije gestures at her woollen jacket, her leggings, her boots: 'All I have is given. I had nothing,' she says. Her priority now, like the rest, is to learn English properly, forget Yugoslavia and imbibe the culture of northern Essex instead. This is a confusing time, they say, but some of it is pleasantly amazing.

'Most of all,' says Zejnije, speaking for them all, 'we are surprised people are so friendly. We thought your people would be cold persons. They want to help us. People come up, they ask: 'How you feel?' '

She pauses. 'It is not just the giving of money,' she says. 'The money is not the main thing. If you do not see the people you give to . . .' She turns her head away and stretches out her hand in a gesture of cold charity.

'But here,' she says, smiling, turning back a direct gaze, 'not so. Here, people have been seeing us.'

(Photograph omitted)