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Refugees Rely on Pay Phones

April 24, 1999

KUKES, Albania (AP) _ She waited in line for five hours, watching men cut in front of her as the afternoon light faded and the damp mountain air chilled. Finally, Shkurte Shala got her chance to telephone her son in Switzerland to tell him the family made it safely out of Kosovo.

Shala, a small woman with clear brown eyes framed by a white scarf, never stopped reassuring 21-year-old Ibrahim.

``When he heard my voice, he started to cry,″ she sighed, standing at dusk Thursday outside the Kukes post office. ``I don’t cry, because that will upset him.″

Shala made her call on one of about a dozen public pay phones installed throughout Kukes last week to give the thousands of Kosovo refugees in this border town a link to the outside world.

From dawn until late at night, they stand 10 deep at every one, clutching cards that work the orange or gray wall units. Small talk passes the time, with the high-pitched beeps signaling expiring cards amid the drone of passing vehicles.

Some refugees just want to inform loved ones they are safe, and perhaps tell their story. Most need help, usually money.

Like the Kosovo conflict itself, the sudden reliance on pay phones seems a throwback to another era. The refugees pouring out of Kosovo resemble the human tides of past European conflicts, when public telephones were the only means of communication for most.

This part of northern Albania has few effective modern services. The water supply cuts off several hours a day in most parts of town, and roads are chewed and potholed at best. Until the Kosovo refugees flooded in, the only way to telephone _ either from home or at the government-run post office in town _ was by asking an operator to make the connection.

The pay phones set up less than two weeks ago are direct-dial, fueled by cards that range in price from the equivalent of $4 to $13 and last for about 10 minutes when calling long-distance.

Almost all the calls are to distant points.

Dritan Zeneda, 27, phoned his brother in Italy for a second time since arriving in Kukes on April 5 from the Kosovo village of Suva Reka.

``I made this call because I need some money and I want him to send it to me,″ said Zeneda, who waited three hours in his knit cap and black leather jacket worn to ward off the early evening cold. ``Perhaps he can find someone who will come to Albania and can bring the money.″

Bafti Suka, 51, also needs money. He stood for four hours to call his daughter in Switzerland, but he was only able to speak to his nephew _ his brother’s son _ because the daughter was out.

``I cried when I spoke with him, and he also cried. He was waiting for us to call,″ said Suka, also of Suva Reka. With his family of 12 sleeping in a room that costs $140 a month, he asked for someone to bring more cash.

``It was so important, this call,″ he went on. ``I don’t have the money to pay the rent for this place, and I can’t find another place.″

Only one pay phone was set up at first, and people waited 12 hours to make calls. Shala, 51, told of standing for three hours last week before giving up, feeling weak and sick from the emotional trauma of leaving her home in Decani.

This time, she remained in a pack that jammed closer as the sun and temperature dropped. Conversation diminished with the daylight, all energy used to stay warm and concentrate on who was calling and who was next.

``Some people don’t stand in the line. They go and put the card in ahead of you,″ she complained afterward. ``It happens often. As a woman, what can I do?″

When her time came, though, she said it was worth it. She didn’t know what city her son was in, only the number she got from a friend of his spotted in Kukes.

``I told him, `Don’t worry, we are well,‴ she said. But the call ended abruptly.

``When I was speaking, the card finished,″ she said, a frown wrinkling her eyes. ``I’m worried about him because he’ll be upset.″

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