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Tales of Terror for Kosovo Refugees

May 17, 1999

BLACE, Macedonia (AP) _ Ethnic Albanians in southern Kosovo are enduring a terrifying existence of constant food shortages, sporadic killings and the ever-present fear of a knock at the door by Serb soldiers, according to new refugees.

More than 800 fearful refugees arrived Sunday from the Urosevac area, 30 miles inside Kosovo from the Macedonian border, and brought fresh stories of terror.

``In our village, they separated the men from the women and some 40 people were gunned down, said Ajim Gasi, one of the Kosovo Albanians who crossed the border. ``We need immediate help from the West in Kosovo, both in terms of humanitarian aid and military aid to save the people still inside. It’s a very harsh situation _ a catastrophe.″

U.N. officials expect thousands more to follow as word spreads that the border has reopened after being closed this month.

The refugees described a climate of terror in southern Kosovo, as Serb police seek out men suspected of working with the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, which is fighting for independence from Serbia, the larger of the two Yugoslav republics.

Some said they knocked holes through high stone walls which separate family compounds so they could talk to neighbors without venturing into the streets.

Others said families are swapping houses to confuse the police. Serb troops have been knocking on _ or kicking down _ doors and demanding to know if men were hiding, refugees said.

``It got riskier and riskier all the time,″ said Xhevahire Osmani, one of the recent arrivals.

She sent her six children into a Macedonian camp seven weeks ago with her brother-in-law because she feared for their safety, but decided to remain behind to protect the family home.

Osmani said she and her neighbors almost never left their homes after the NATO bombing campaign started March 24.

``This morning I woke up having dreamt about my children, and I decided I had to leave,″ Osmani added.

NATO launched its bombing campaign to force President Slobodan Milosevic to accept a Western peace plan for Kosovo, a Serb province that has a majority Albanian population.

Afrim Ibrahimi, 29, had never wanted to leave Kosovo. But he said as someone who ran errands for the KLA, life became more dangerous by the day. He slept at a different house each night, survived a beating by Serb troops, and a threat to cut off one of his ears.

``Yesterday, the Serbs came again to our street and beat up four people and gave them an ultimatum,″ Ibrahimi said. ``They said the border is open. Go to Macedonia. If you don’t leave, I’ll kill you.″

At 8.00 a.m. Saturday, Ibrahimi collected his wife, their three young children and what possessions he could carry to the train station.

Mustafe Sfaqla, 52, has also been constantly on the move for the past month, never staying put for more than three days at a time.

``We left at 5 a.m. this morning, because the police were coming to our home,″ Sfaqla said. ``They were looking for men.″

He said families survived off stockpiled food, sharing with others and bartering.

Elderly women regularly risked forays into the streets to find fresh food. Children aged between seven and 10 were allowed out too, until police followed some of them home trying to find adults.

Ibrahimi said Serbs had looted the warehouses in Urosevac of the local Mother Teresa humanitarian organization and were selling the goods in government shops _ but not to ethnic Albanians.

The new refugees confirmed earlier reports that Serb shopkeepers were often refusing to sell ethnic Albanians food, even when their risked their lives to venture out of their homes.

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