Homeward bound in the Balkans

Published: 11 April 2001 0:00 CET
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On the winding mountain road from the Albanian border, people were heading home. Fighting around the northern city of Tetovo, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, had stopped and those it had displaced were anxious to pick up their lives again.

Unnoticed, unreported, a handful of others headed the other way. The last clashes between government forces and ethnic Albanian fighters in the Crna Gora mountains had caused them to flee their villages. Uncertainty prevailed in their minds. They would find a bolt-hole somewhere and wait a while.

The border town of Debar, and the mountain villages around, provide many a bolt-hole for those who wait and watch. In the last two weeks of March, the Macedonian Red Cross registered more than 1,100 displaced people here, and provided assistance. Many have left again, but others remain. "Some will stay here for some time," said branch secretary Ramadan Telqui. "They are afraid. They will only go home when they are sure conditions are reasonable."

Merita, a mother of two small children, crossed from Debar and is living with relatives in Peshkopi, the first town on the road from the border. From a troubled hill village in north-western Macedonia, she is prepared for an extended stay. Due to give birth again any day, she feels safe in Peshkopi, a poor town of 20,000 people, but one she has found to be hospitable. Her eldest child is checked into a local school, a hospital will care for her through the birth, and the Albanian Red Cross is helping.

Fear rather than fighting had caused her to run, along with two other women and their children. Shots had been heard in her village, men with machine guns reportedly appeared, and the women did not wait to ask questions. An uncle drove them to the border. They did not ask for asylum, but told guards they were visiting relatives, fearing they might not be accepted as refugees. It is a common story and no one has registered with the authorities. They are all going home, they say, only some may take longer than others.

The Albanian Red Cross has an open door for those in need. So far, branches have provided essentials: food, hygiene parcels, cooking sets, mattresses. According to Peshkopi branch secretary, Ahmet Tomja, the Red Cross has also been helping travellers reach their destinations, and find accommodation.

Like Ramadan Telqui across the border in Debar, he has limited financial resources. But in the town and in the villages of his district where visitors wait, he is monitoring humanitarian need and is prepared for it.

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