Refugees flee into uncertainty; Ethnic Albanians tell of atrocities on road; WAR IN KOSOVO


KUKES, Albania -- Masar Rexhepi has escaped from hell, along with scores of thousands of other Kosovar Albanians.

The 43-year-old mathematics teacher says he fled to the woods to survive Serbian shelling. He says he saw 13 bodies charred nearly beyond recognition.

And he endured a forced march, herded by Serbian security forces who engaged in random executions and were bent on clearing ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

"I didn't dare turn to the left or the right," he said. "At the tail of the column, some people were missing."

Yesterday, Rexhepi was part of another long column, riding with dozens of others in the bed of a dump truck down a remote, perilous road that twisted through the craggy, forbidding mountains of northern Albania.

He was headed for safety in Tirana, the Albanian capital, as Albania was inundated with tens of thousands of refugees forced out of Kosovo in a brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign.

NATO bombs that were designed to end Serbian dominance of Kosovo have triggered a furious response from security forces that remain under the firm control of Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic.

In one of the more diabolical offenses faced by NATO, the allies' aerial campaign has been countered by a Serbian sweep of Kosovar Albanian civilians across central Kosovo. Tales are rampant of atrocities, roundups, forced marches, looting and destruction of documents, as Serbian security forces seek to erase traces of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

The civilians are arriving in Kukes, a dusty, dilapidated city by a lake, 20 miles inside Albania's northern border with Yugoslavia.

Thousands were milling along the main boulevard, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Some sat atop the mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers that dot this land, throwbacks to a time when Albania was under the firm Stalinist grip of Enver Hoxha.

Hundreds more were huddled in an old factory, plastic covering windows and cigarette smoke rising to the ceilings. Two women held both sides of a blanket and rocked a baby to sleep, while outside the stench was rising from a freshly dug latrine.

Humanitarian officials said that since Saturday, at least 60,000 refugees passed through here. There are unconfirmed reports that the Serbs might be sending at least 100,000 more refugees in this direction, with some coming from Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina.

To see Europe close the 20th century the way it began it, with ethnic hatred running wild and refugees on the run, is a stunning sight.

The Kukes-Tirana road, a trail of switchbacks through mountains that soar thousands of feet, was loaded with human misery.

Peasant women braved a raw day, huddled in blankets on open flatbed trailers pulled by farm tractors. Children rode in the cabs of trucks. Families jammed themselves and their meager possessions into rusting, belching cars like the Zastava -- the so-called Yugo.

License plates were removed from the cars by Serbian authorities. And everywhere, people spoke of what they had survived.

In a conversation at a roadside cafe, Rexhepi appeared to provide the most compelling account of alleged atrocities by the Serbian security forces.

He claimed knowledge of up to 60 murders as Serbian security forces routed the locals out of the town of Celin. He said the campaign began at 4: 15 Thursday morning, hours after NATO's bombs began raining down on Yugoslavia.

Serbian forces surrounded eight villages with tanks, including three tanks in his village. Some 5,000 people from Celin and surrounding villages headed for the mountains to wait out the shelling, Rexhepi said.

Thursday night, he sneaked back into the village with two teen-age boys he had hidden with in the woods.

He took the teens home and heard screaming as the boys discovered the bodies of their father, Naim Rexhepi, an economist; two uncles; and two guests. Rexhepi said he also found 13 charred bodies in a courtyard and recognized some of the victims.

Then he went back to the mountains with others, but eventually gave up Sunday. "The police surrounded us," he said. "We picked up a white flag and surrendered ourselves to the Serbs."

During Sunday's roundup, Rexhepi said, the security forces separated the men from the women and children. They were forced to march 3 1/2 miles to trucks that took them near the border where they crossed on foot.

He accused one man wearing a green army uniform of taking a 22-year-old named Agim Ramadanip and shooting him in front of the victim's parents. He said a deaf man named Vefai Rexhemi was knocked down and killed when he failed to hear and heed a demand to give a Serbian three-fingered salute. The shooting occurred in front of Rexhemi's wife, Dardan, and two children, he said.

"We have been robbed, stripped of all valuable things like passports, watches and jewelry," he said. "All those documents, they collected together and burned."

While Rexhepi was headed for safety, others were waiting to hear about loved ones.

Nurisha Kabashi, 57, of Suva Reka, was anxious to learn the fate of six family members: her husband, son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. "I think the Serbian forces have killed my family," she said.

Sevdie Zeqiri, a 32-year-old from Ravec, was awaiting a report on her husband, Avni. "I have not seen him in days," she said.

Most here said they didn't resent NATO's aerial action, though it appears to have triggered a final, determined round of "ethnic cleansing," the Balkans euphemism for the forced exile and execution of one ethnic group by another.

"With or without bombing, Milosevic planned to do this," said Sarif Tahirsulaj, 27, who said one of his friends was killed for possessing a gun.

Sylvia Germiszag, 31, a doctor from Prizren who worked for the Mother Teresa humanitarian agency, was adamant that NATO action was necessary.

"We greet NATO," she said. "We appreciate their help. Milosevic is mad. He is crazy."

"NATO has to do more intensive attacks," she said, "not only from the air."

Standing at the side of the a dusty road, Germiszag counted the costs of the attack. Three homes on her street in Prizren were firebombed after the aerial campaign started and one man, a prominent politician, was injured.

Sunday night, she said, Serbian police knocked on her door and told her that she and her family had one minute to leave. They collected car keys and left virtually everything else behind, including her medical school diploma.

Early yesterday -- 11 hours later -- she arrived in Albania with eight members of her family. They were safe, and exhausted.

"It is my hope and dream to come back to my country where I was born and where I lived," she said. "This is terrible, terrible what happened. Even God is not with us. He is not helping us now."

Pub Date: 3/30/99

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