Journey from the Balkan inferno

Travelling with a convoy of refugees in northern Albania, Melanie McDonaghfinds them unanimous in th

If you want to see the Kosovo diaspora, travel by bus. My trip to northern Albania was in a minibus, both ways. On the way up to Kukes, I travelled with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). On the way back to Tirana, I shared a bus with 14 refugees from Djakova for the last stage of their displacement from their homes. In between I talked to some of the countless refugees in Kukes and Kruma. It would be easy to give the edited highlights of a few of those conversations, the bloodiest ones - as one man said, it was like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre every night where he came from - but my fellow travellers, in an arbitrary, unspectacular way, give the picture just as well.

Our minibus left Kruma for Tirana at seven in the morning. On the way, to begin with, the driver would slow down as we passed other refugee buses and open the window to shout to the other drivers, asking for news of people they knew. Or they would shout a name to us, and the driver would turn round and ask the passengers whether they'd heard of so-and-so; they'd shake their heads, and we'd drive on. We'd pass the covered Albanian army lorries and if the back flap was open we could see whole families looking back at us: old women, nursing mothers, solemn children.

We hadn't gone far when the woman behind me tugged at my sleeve. Her sister-in-law, Hanine, a striking blonde woman, said: "She wants to tell you what she's seen." I said we'd talk at the next stop. Hanine Morina spoke English; another couple at the back in their thirties with their two boys and three-year-old daughter, Aphrodite, had worked for 12 years in Switzerland and spoke good German. They were the Pepsit family. When I asked them what had happened when Djakova was cleansed, the husband, Xhavit, said apologetically: "We didn't see the killings ourselves, because we shut ourselves into our houses, we locked it inside and out so it would look as though we'd left. We heard the shooting from inside and we heard the cries and the shouting. When we came out, yesterday, when we heard the others on the streets, everything was destroyed. Shops, houses, everything." They'd walked without stopping, with all their neighbours, 20 hours from Djakova. At the border, the guards had asked them for their passports; if they wanted to go back, there would be no proof of their identity.

We halted in a little village outside a cafe. Maybe we could talk inside with the others, I asked? Xhavit Pepsit and his wife said awkwardly that they had no money; I said I could get soup for all of us; embarrassed, they thanked me. What I hadn't bargained for was that some of the passengers wouldn't be able to eat. Four of the women stayed behind in the bus; the old lady was too weak to move. "I can't eat," said Hanine, apologetically. "I haven't been able to eat for two days now."

The old lady's husband, Mozllom Kavaju, a stout, unshaven man of 72, ate bread and the lamb and potato soup with a hearty appetite. I got the Pepsit couple to translate for him and I borrowed a Biro from the waitress to take notes. "There were tanks in Djakova at the start," he said, addressing first the driver, then me, "in the old town. There were Russians and Serbs. They killed my son-in-law, Ali Berberi - he's not buried yet. They came to the door and spoke in Russian; several men. They looked for money. He tried to get away, through the window, but he couldn't get over the wall in time. They shot him and cut his throat in his own house. I saw him, in the garden. They killed 17 people outside the mosque." He turned again to the whole table and said dramatically: "I'm 72, I lived through the last war. Hitler didn't do such things. They shot people; they didn't do massacres." By that, he meant cutting throats, mutilating bodies.

The woman who had been tugging my arm in the bus wanted to talk. Masked men, five of them, had come in an unmarked car to her house looking for her brother. She'd invited them in for a coffee, and gave them what money she had, the equivalent of 320 German marks, but they told her that she had five minutes to leave the house. She was able to signal to her brother to get away; he escaped out of the window. Her sister-in-law, Hanine, nodded. "The day before yesterday, they set fire to the town," she said. "We heard the shouting of women and children; next day when we came out into the street, we saw two dead bodies. They burnt humanitarian aid, too, in Marshal Tito Street, at 11 in the morning. Albanians who worked for humanitarian organisations were killed: Dr Izet Hima was one of them."

"We need a week in a psychiatric clinic," said her husband. "I haven't slept for ten days now."

I asked them what I'd been asking every refugee: were they in favour of the Nato bombing? Their answer was just the same as everyone else's: "We're all for the bombing," said Mrs Pepsit. "At the end of our street, there was a factory which the Serbs used for storing heavy weapons. If Nato had hit it, we might have been killed. But we asked Nato for the bombing."

The old man, Mozllom Kavaju, the one whose son-in-law had been murdered, said imposingly: "We thank Nato, and the Americans and the English because they tried to help us."

Xhavit Pepsit nodded emphatically: "Believe me, if Nato hadn't struck, there would have been an even bigger massacre."

No one demurred. And could you live with Serbs again? They shook their heads. "Never again," said Xhavit Pepsit. "Once, when we had autonomy, it was fine, but not now."

We clambered back into the bus and set off. Half an hour later we had to stop again. The old lady had had a seizure; we carried her out to the side of the road, and her hands were trembling uncontrollably. She, like the others, had had to walk 20 hours without stopping; if the refugees had tried to stop, men with guns had pushed them on. But she had borne the journey less well than her husband. The unshaven but dignified old man sat at the side of the road with his wife's head cradled in his lap, while the others splashed water in her face.

When we reached the outskirts of Tirana, I asked the refugees tentatively where they were going. Hanine said that she was going to her aunt. They'd never met before. Xhavit's family, all five of them, were going to his brother's in Durres. "I don't know whether he'll have room for us," he said. "I've never been there."

When I shook their hands in turn as I left, the old man said to me: "Come and visit us when we go back to Kosovo. You will be very welcome."

This article first appeared in the 09 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Judge the US by deeds, not words