Given up for dead, hundreds of Kosovo men cross to safety
Some 9,000 refugees exit Yugoslavia in one day
May 23, 1999
On Sunday, hundreds of Kosovar men who had been missing and presumed dead were searching for their families in Albania, among crowds of refugees, a day after they stepped down from battered buses at the border post of Morina.
Women and children gaped at the men on Saturday, straining to identify husbands and fathers, while many of the new arrivals wept openly.
The men said they had been arrested in the Mitrovica region in the north of Kosovo, and were accused by the Serbs of being terrorists and members of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Tired and apparently malnourished, ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, they had been missing for more than a month, and were feared dead by their families.
But on Saturday, they became part of the heaviest exodus from Kosovo in nearly two weeks, when the Serbs suddenly set them free and put them on buses heading to the border.
Where is my family?
They had been held in a prison in Smrekolica, many told CNN's Martin Savidge. Some said they were beaten and tortured, and robbed by Serbian police. Some men said they were fed only bread or nothing at all.
As they disembarked from buses, the first question many asked was "Where is my family?"
Their families were driven from their homes by the Serbs and forced to flee the province, some of the newly-arrived refugees said.
"On the one hand, it's nasty to see it because you see what's going on," said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.
"On the other hand, there are going to be a lot of happy women and children tonight because this is the first time we've had some men come out (in a while)."
Once inside Albania, as they passed refugee camps en route to Kukes, women and children stared to see if they recognized anyone. In the town square, the men met a throng of people. Some found familiar faces.
"I thought they were all dead," said one old man, after he found his two sons. Upon seeing them, he said it was as if they had been born once more.
A CNN translator pushed through the crowd, moving toward one of the arrivals, his missing uncle. They embraced and shed tears.
But few had such joyful reunions. Most of the men did not find their families. Once the missing, they were now the searchers.
Hiding in the hills
Almost 9,000 refugees streamed into Albania and Macedonia on Saturday. About 3,600 went to Albania. The 5,000 who entered Macedonia made up the largest single daily influx since that nation reopened its border 10 days ago.
Most of those who left Saturday were from the Suva Reka region, northeast of Prizren, NATO officials said.
Some said they had hidden in the hills for two months when the Serb forces found them, said alliance spokesman Jamie Shea. The refugees reported that more than half their homes had burned down, he added.
About 750,000 people have fled Kosovo since the March 24 start of NATO airstrikes in Yugoslavia.
Documenting accounts of brutality
A team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe has interviewed refugees in Albania and Macedonia, taking about 1,400 accounts, Shea said.
The OSCE's special envoy to Kosovo, William Walker, said that stories of atrocities are frequently heard in the refugee camps.
"They talk of massacres. They talk of brutality. They talk of all sorts of crimes that have been committed against them," Walker said.
"I don't know anyone who has talked to the refugees in these camps who doesn't go away saying they have heard the truth. They have heard real stories from real people about real brutality," he said.
A hastily deserted village
A U.N. humanitarian delegation has been in Kosovo since last week, but Shea said he has been told the Serb government has limited its access.
He said the delegation's leader, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Sergio Viera de Mello, painted a dim picture of the few places the group had seen.
One place the group was allowed to visit was the village of Masada Balbuc.
"That village was found to be completely deserted. Inside the houses, the bedding the household material were strewn all over the floors, signs of looting and hasty departures," Shea said.
Shea called the conditions "silent confirmation" that people were forced to leave.
Correspondent Martin Savidge contributed to this report.
Missing Kosovo men turn up amid new surge of refugees
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