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Aged Refugees Face Intense Trauma

May 28, 1999

KUKES, Albania (AP) _ After a lifetime within the warm, traditional embrace of kin and community, Kosovo refugee Gjyride Salihu, aged 104, finds herself utterly alone.

Bundled in a sweater and scarf, the tiny woman lies inside one of a row of green, military tents that constitute the only other home she’s known, a refugee camp.

``I have no one here. I cannot explain my loneliness,″ says the still agile-minded woman, describing how she was separated from her son during the flight from Kosovo two weeks ago.

Being violently torn from one’s homeland is traumatic for almost anyone, but aid workers say it’s particularly intense for Kosovo’s thousands of aged refugees.

``This is the most vulnerable part of the population because outside the community there’s no system of care for the elders,″ says American nurse Philip Amstislavski.

``In Kosovo they are taken care of by their families. This is great. I wish we had that in the West. But when the chains are broken, sorrow results.″

To help fill this void, particularly among those ill and without family, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S.-based International Medical Corps have set up what Amstislavski calls ``the only nursing home in Albania,″ where, like Kosovo, institutional care for the elderly is unknown. Four tents house 39 refugees and there are plans to care for 100.

The shelter is run by an energetic female nurse in the United Arab Emirates army, Capt. Fareeda S. bin Rabbaa. Eighteen attending nurses and two doctors are Kosovo refugees, while American volunteers like 28-year-old New Yorker Amstislavski provide special expertise.

``We can give them all the medicine to alleviate pain, but we can’t give them anything for the heart,″ says Dr. Ekrem Shala, a refugee doctor from Prizren.

The refugees, Shala says, arrive with many medical problems, often made worse by the cold winds which roll down the mountains and seep into their made-for-the-desert tents. Three, including a 105-year-old man, have died.

Some are demented, probably by the shock of being uprooted and the terror of the flight, doctors say. Several sound-minded elders related how the Serb military, showing no respect or mercy for their years, beat or even shot them.

One woman gives her age as ``seven, maybe 10.″ Propped up by two canes, 87-year-old Rrahmadan Balaj Deli repeats, ``I am alone, I have no wife, no land, nothing,″ and then utters strings of unintelligible phrases.

A few are lucky. Nine have already been reunited with family members and others are making contact with relatives in Western Europe or among the more than 840,000 mostly ethnic Albanian refugees who have fled Kosovo.

Fatime Selmanil, 61, says a daughter and son live in Germany but she clutches a small photograph of another daughter who couldn’t escape, and weeps.

``She never married because she just wanted to take care of us,″ she says, her partially paralyzed, 73-year-old husband at her side. ``I would be willing to sleep on the hard earth just to be with my daughter again.″

Inside another tent, 104-year-old Salihu, whose husband died many years go, talks about Petrove, a small farming community where she lived since birth.

Face ashen, uncombed hair streaming from under a white scarf, a wraith-like woman listens silently as Salihu wonders whether her son is still alive. A man’s agonizing moan is heard.

``We hope God will help us,″ Salihu says.

Although feisty, Salihu and others need help to walk, to bathe, to be amused.

``They’re like little children,″ says bin Rabbaa, the United Arab Emirates nurse. ``They want chocolates and stories told to them in the night. They need food and a feeling of security and of course love.″

If relatives are not found, they will require daily care by refugee and aid agencies until they return to Kosovo, or die. And because the Kosovo exodus includes far more elderly people than a typical refugee population, this task is expected to be exacting.

Dr. Rushi Abdul Cader, a volunteer from Los Angeles, said temporary retirement homes would be established in refugee camps deeper inside Albania to which many from the crowded Kukes camps will be moved.

``It’s terrible to be lost when you are young,″ the doctor said. ``But when you are old, it’s unimaginable.″

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