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Kosovo Refugees Seek To Be Reunited

May 8, 1999

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ They file hesitantly into a Red Cross office, refugee after refugee, seeking help in tracking down parents, spouses and children lost during the chaotic mass exodus from Kosovo.

Experts collect essential information and offer advice, but the task is daunting: Relief workers say a large majority of the 700,000 refugees who have left Kosovo are unsure of the whereabouts of some close relatives.

``It’s very difficult to trace people,″ said Thierry Schreyer, a Swiss tracing expert. ``We don’t know who is where.″

Communication is the key in the campaign to reunite divided families. The Red Cross compiles lists of refugees’ names and whereabouts, then distributes them to be read on special radio broadcasts and printed in newspapers.

Local television stations sometimes give air time to refugees, who hope missing relatives will see or hear about the broadcast.

Several hundred families have been reunited this way, including a few whose members had been scattered to different countries.

``But that’s just a drop in the bucket ... the very small tip of a very large iceberg,″ said Daloni Carlisle, a spokeswoman at the Tirana office of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

About 150 refugees come to the ICRC tracing center in Tirana every day, providing information that goes to radio stations and newspapers.

One of those on hand Saturday was Zenel Kastrati, from the northern Kosovo village of Brojes. Now a fighter with the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, he was given leave to come to Tirana to search for his wife and four children, who were forced from their home a month ago by Serb forces.

Kastrati said he saw his family crossing the Albanian border in a TV news broadcast, but has made no headway in finding them after a week of searching.

``I’m very sad,″ Kastrati said. ``I’ve never been outside of Kosovo before.″

Another distraught father, Ramadan Qarreti, was seeking Red Cross help in finding a 3-year-old son still in Kosovo.

Qarreti said his wife was killed and the boy badly wounded several weeks ago in what he called an unprovoked shooting by Serb paramilitary forces. Qarreti fled to Albania, and the boy _ in the care of his grandmother _ was taken to a hospital in the Kosovo city of Prizren.

But Qarreti said he has had no recent news of his son, and hoped the Red Cross could locate the boy and perhaps arrange to get him from Kosovo to Albania.

Schreyer said the Red Cross’s capabilities were limited because its staff had withdrawn from Kosovo. But he said a special message from Qarreti would be broadcast on radio stations received there.

He also offered to relay an inquiry to Serb authorities in Belgrade, but Qarreti declined, saying he feared it might cause problems for his son.

One of the first services the Red Cross offers to refugees as they cross from Kosovo into Albania or Macedonia is access to a satellite telephone to call a relative anywhere in the world.

Though many refugees have been stripped of their identity cards or passports, they often have clung to what many consider their most vital document _ a slip of paper with the phone number of some relative abroad. Carlisle said some people have even written the number in ink on their skin.

With so many refugees in need of help, the Red Cross is focusing its efforts on particularly vulnerable groups: children separated from their parents, the elderly, the sick and the injured.

``The elderly have lost the lands their families have lived on for generations, and now some of them have lost their families as well,″ said Carlisle. ``They say, `I have nothing left to live for.‴

Carlisle said older children also present a special challenge.

``The smaller children usually get looked after, but nobody looks after the teen-agers,″ she said.

She told of a shy 15-year-old boy named Rimi, who was staying at a refugee camp in Tirana with no idea what happened to the rest of his family. He initially sought Red Cross help, but no longer shows up at the office.

``I saw him day by day becoming more angry, having to get used to the street life and struggling to survive,″ Carlisle said.

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