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Refugees in Macedonia Claim Abuse

April 12, 1999

RADUSA, Macedonia (AP) _ The ordeal of ethnic Albanians driven out of Kosovo is continuing in camps in Macedonia, where refugees and international monitors claim guards keep order with barbed wire and occasional clubbings and often harass women.

Fearing the 40,000 Kosovo Albanians in the tent cities will upset the country’s political and ethnic balance, Macedonia is preventing many refugees from leaving the camps _ even if they say they have another place to stay.

Macedonia denies any mistreatment, and says it was overwhelmed by the arrival of 120,000 people in the space of a few days. Officials say keeping the Albanians in the camps will help keep track of them; already about 50,000 are staying in private Albanian homes, and a number have been airlifted to third countries. Nearly 10,000 were shipped overnight out of a border area into Albania last week.

William Walker, the Kosovo mission chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, acknowledges that any country would have had trouble coping with such a sudden refugee influx. ``I don’t blame Macedonia,″ he said.

Still, complaints persist from Radusa, the most remote of the nine refugee centers that have been established, and the only one set up and run entirely by Macedonians. Outside aid agencies were admitted only Saturday.

Walker visited Radusa on Sunday and his spokesman likened the conditions to ``a concentration camp.″

Refugees say guards fire submachine guns in the air at night, pelt refugees’ tents with stones and train their flashlights on women when they get up to go to the toilets.

``I’m an old woman so I don’t worry, but what about my daughters?″ asked Fatime Podvorica, one of a group of refugee women who said their men were mostly in Kosovo, killed in fighting or taken away by the Serbs.

Even at better-tended camps nearer the capital, Skopje, police have bludgeoned refugees with truncheons in full view of international monitors, said Stephen Odum, a member of the Kosovo OSCE mission.

At the Stenkovic camp, run with the help of French NATO troops, Macedonian guards sit on an incline above the women’s latrines, laughing as women relieve themselves, Odum said.

Odum said he complained to a French officer, who had tears in his eyes as he said he had no authority to do anything.

``To see what they’ve gone through and then see their dignity and freedom taken away again _ it’s like, when will these people ever get a break?″ Odum said.

Conditions at Radusa have improved markedly since aid agencies arrived. On Monday, aid workers installed a shower and distributed clean clothes, and the guards’ guns were nowhere in evidence.

But even with the improvements, refugees point to sickly, skinny babies and children with skin rashes and diarrhea _ the result of days of sleeping in mud without enough water and food and only six reeking toilets for more than 1,000 people.

``It is very bad here,″ said Podvorica, the woman with three daughters. ``We are very afraid we are going to stay here.″

A poor country, Macedonia said it can accept only 20,000 of the refugees permanently. It’s already well beyond that quota.

Many camp residents say they have family to stay with, but the government has refused to let them leave, fearing they would settle permanently and upset the nation’s ethnic balance. Macedonia’s one-fifth Albanian population already has been demanding more rights.

``We feel like we’re in prison,″ said refugee Basri Jashari.

At the Radusa camp on Monday, authorities allowed Mevlude Shkodra to take out her 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, separated from her in Macedonian officials’ rush to clear refugees from a border no-man’s land last week. Their 75-year-old grandmother had been tending them.

The daughter stood poised at the camp gate until guards opened it, then burst through and fell upon her mother, sobbing.

``Where are you going? Don’t go!″ she wailed when her mother had to move aside for a truck. Reassured, the children walked away with their mother.

Grandmother Zahide Shkodra gave them a last hug, then opened the gate of the camp and walked back inside. She did not have permission to go.