Hakim Spahiu pulled into this dusty farming settlement Thursday on a horse-drawn wagon loaded with misery--his blind 84-year-old mother, screaming infant grandson and seven other exhausted and homeless members of his extended family.
Driven from their ancestral village nearly two weeks ago, they have been on the move ever since. They spent two nights sleeping in vineyards and settled briefly as guests in another village until the war in Kosovo province uprooted them again.
“Maybe it’s too much to hope that we are finally safe here,” said the 61-year-old grape grower, dazed and sunburned by the ordeal and fearful of unwanted journeys to come.
Thousands of ethnic Albanians like the Spahiu clan are trekking on foot or by wagon to seek shelter in yet-unscathed villages in the largest human displacement since government forces began attacking armed Albanian separatists five months ago. Many have moved at least twice.
Foreign relief officials estimate the number of people uprooted by the latest government offensive, which began last Friday, to be as high as 50,000. The officials said they were alarmed not only by the scale of the exodus but also by what they call Serbian police obstruction of their efforts to reach displaced people with needed food, medicine and clothing.
“Those who have been fleeing since last weekend are likely to have run out of food by now,” said Maki Shinohara, spokeswoman in Kosovo for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “There are tons of children out there. If this goes on a few more days, we could be facing a humanitarian disaster.”
Many people reaching this village near the town of Prizren in southwest Kosovo said their trip had been a nightmare.
“On the first day, we were merely frightened,” said Naime Qanta, 23, whose family spent 10 days traveling in a truck with about 50 other people, fleeing from two besieged towns in succession. “By the fifth day, we wanted to die.”
U.N. officials said Serbian paramilitary police, who are fighting alongside Yugoslav army troops, had repeatedly barred vehicles of their relief agency and others from a military zone that embraces most of southwest Kosovo. Police have told relief workers and journalists that roads in the zone are unsafe.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic told European diplomats Thursday that the latest government offensive was over. The operation, a major government success, regained key roads and captured the town of Malisevo, a rebel stronghold.
But ethnic Albanian leaders said government forces were still surrounding and shelling Junik, trapping several thousand civilians in that rebel-held town near the Albanian border. Reporters saw a long convoy of army tanks Thursday moving toward Junik from Prizren.
At least 400 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in fighting since February. The guerrillas’ demand for independence from Serbia, the dominant republic of Milosevic’s Yugoslav federation, has broad support among the province’s ethnic Albanians, who outnumber Serbs 9 to 1.
Kosovo’s 2 million people live in a few large towns and hundreds of villages scattered over an area slightly larger than Los Angeles County. About 150,000 had been displaced before the latest offensive, according to U.N. estimates, including a few thousand ethnic Serbs run out of villages by the rebels.
The number of displaced Albanians soared this week, far out of proportion to any damage to their homes. With the rebels in retreat, many villagers said they lost a sense of security and fled at the first sign of government troops. The last of 30,000 inhabitants left Malisevo with the rebels hours before Tuesday’s arrival of the army and police.
People arriving here insist that the Serbian authorities are trying to “cleanse” the province of ethnic Albanians.
“We refuse to leave Kosovo,” said Asllan Qanta, 51, “even if it means living like nomads. This is our form of peaceful resistance.”
Albanians here and in other villages have responded generously to their uprooted compatriots, who arrive with few belongings.
Nearly every home in Velika Krusa, a town of 5,000 located about 30 miles southwest of Pristina, the provincial capital, has lodged a displaced family. Hasan Ymeri, a farmer and cattleman, has taken in two families, adding 17 mouths to the 17 he already feeds.
About 3,000 people have taken refuge here in July--1,300 of them this week, according to a handwritten logbook at a reception area in the local schoolyard.
But while the village is rich in hospitality and food, it is poor in medicine--at least for Albanians.
A Serb-run hospital down the road is off limits, they say, and Serbian police often seize medication from Albanians trying to bring it in from Prizren, about 10 miles southeast of Velika Krusa; police claim the drugs are meant for wounded guerrillas.
Xhemajl Dana, one of three doctors who work here at home, said the village has an urgent need for painkillers and sedatives for the distraught newcomers.
He said he had treated about 50 refugees for ailments and injuries, including gunshot and shrapnel wounds, but was unable to help a 1-year-old baby who suffered anemia during the journey or a 70-year-old diabetic man who fled home without his insulin. He sends the seriously ill to Prizren, but a 32-year-old man dispatched there with shrapnel wounds was arrested on the way, he said.
The United States and its European allies are demanding that Milosevic’s government account for the displaced people and allow them to return home.
But a Western diplomat in Kosovo admitted that the Serbs “have no capacity to convince them to come back” because ethnic Albanians are “simply terrorized by the security forces.”
Iliri Qanta, 17, offers a case in point.
After arriving here two days ago with his parents, brother and two sisters, he volunteered to walk back to the family home in Orahovac five miles to the north to see whether it had survived the fierce shelling that helped government forces rout the guerrillas last week in a five-day battle for the town.
The mayor of Orahovac had been on television appealing for a return of the estimated 15,000 ethnic Albanians who had fled.
But when the teenager reached a checkpoint on the edge of town, he said, a Serbian police officer and a plainclothes agent beat him with their fists, breaking his nose. After interrogating him for an hour about possible connections to the guerrillas and threatening to hang him from a lamppost, they turned him loose.
“Now you are free to go to Orahovac,” Qanta said they told him. Instead, he turned around and came back to his family.