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Kosovo Refugees Tell of Atrocities

April 4, 1999

ROZAJE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Leading his family to safety across the mountains after being thrown out of his house, Cerim Tafalaj turned and took a final look back at his homeland, Kosovo.

It was in flames.

Tafalaj, 61, said he fled on foot to Montenegro after gunmen came to his door and told him, ``’Go now or you won’t wake up tomorrow. We will stab you while you sleep.‴ They weren’t the police or the army. They were his neighbors.

Tafalaj related his last view of Kosovo on Saturday, hours after joining thousands of ethnic Albanians _ 32,000 here in Montenegro, the smaller of the two republics that make up Yugoslavia _ who have poured across the borders to escape the terror.

An overnight snowstorm slowed the exodus into Montenegro, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, leaving an icy mountain road with 7-foot-high snowbanks almost impassable.

Despite the conditions, carloads of frightened ethnic Albanians continued to make their way into Rozaje (pronounced RO-zhai-eh), a town already so strained under the burden of 12,000 new refugees that huge bread lines form outside bakeries before dawn.

Hundreds each are packed into mosques, the bus station and an abandoned glass factory where babies’ cries resound across damp concrete floors and entire families shiver under blankets in a production hall.

Their accounts are impossible to corroborate, but like thousands before them they told of being ordered at gunpoint to leave their homes and of witnessing killing, looting and burning of houses. Shock and fear, rather than anger, were etched in their faces.

``We ran away in order not to be killed,″ said Faton Zekaj, 20, standing near a portrait of Tito, the father of modern-day Yugoslavia, once meant to inspire factory workers.

Kosovars, many of whom walked here from the besieged city of Pec about 25 miles south, also made chilling claims about the identities of the thugs emptying out Kosovo’s towns and cities.

Besides Tafalaj, 28-year-old Shqipe Husaj was among several refugees from western Kosovo who said they recognized their assailants.

``They are all our neighbors, Serb boys of 15 and 16, wearing police uniforms,″ she said.

After burning nearby shops, she said, they attacked her family’s home with stones and gunfire. ``They told us to leave the house. They said ```Get out and go. We don’t want to see you any more.‴

As her family fled last week, Serb paramilitary separated the men from the women and demanded as much as $1,200 from the men to let them go, she said. One man said he had only $30, drawing obscenities from the armed group.

``They shot him dead right in front of his family,″ said Husaj, her voice shaking. ``I saw him collapse.″

The journey itself is taking a toll.

Four babies traveling in a large group on Wednesday died of exposure, according to Mevljuda Shalja. The 39-year-old woman, now housed in a cramped mosque with 300 others, said she made the long walk in her slippers because she barely had time to round up her five children after gunmen told them, ``If you don’t go in five minutes we’ll kill you.″

Aisa Gutic, 75, covered the distance on foot Friday despite her age. She looked pale and unwell Saturday, still shocked from watching the destruction of her home and the once-thriving city of Pec. It is now virtually empty, she said, most of its houses burning or bombed out with no water and virtually no food available.

Yet many cling to a seemingly irrational dream to return.

``I will go back when it’s free,″ said Osman Fekaj, 70, whose extended family of dozens occupies one entire room in the cold factory, which has no electricity.

``For now it’s not safe. Serbs are using bombs, grenades. God knows how many of them there are. They were everywhere,″ he said.

Others only shrug when asked where they will go next. Survival is the main concern _ those who arrived without money have been given only a single piece of bread to eat in the last three days.

With international aid groups mostly still scrambling to arrive to meet the overwhelming needs, the high numbers of refugees pouring into Montenegro threaten to create both a humanitarian and a political crisis in the republic of 650,000, which Western officials warn is being targeted by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for a military coup.

``We feel bad for them. It’s a tragedy,″ said Selma Fetahovic, a 25-year-old English teacher who wept when she saw the refugees’ abysmal condition at the glass factory.

``But it is creating tremendous pressure on us,″ she said. ``We can’t take any more.″

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