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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kosovo Albanians Rush to Go Home




As Serbian forces pulled out, thousands of ethnic Albanians streamed into Kosovo from Macedonia and Albania on Tuesday, ignoring warnings from aid officials that it was not yet safe for them to go home.


NATO troops entering the ravaged province found chilling evidence of massacres by Serbs - including hastily dug mass graves. But many refugees could not be dissuaded from going back.


"We've had enough. We know from people in Pristina that houses are still there. If our house isn't there, at least the land is," said Naim Mustafa, 32, who was heading for Pristina, Kosovo's capital, after more than two months in Macedonia.


In steaming heat, a line of cars carrying refugees and their belongings stretched for more than a kilometer at the Blace border crossing on the Macedonian side. UN refugee officials calculated that more than 2,000 people had crossed by late afternoon.


In neighboring Albania, refugees were also on the move, 3,000 passing through the Vermica border point by early afternoon.


Albania and Macedonia had received the bulk of the some 800,000 ethnic Albanians who fled or were expelled from Kosovo since NATO's air war on Yugoslavia began on March 24.


But if the refugees needed patience for the long border wait, it was nothing compared with the dramatic and humiliating circumstances under which many of them arrived in Blace, crammed aboard airless trains in scenes reminiscent of the Nazi era.


The United Nation's refugee agency UNHCR distributed leaflets at Blace warning refugees of the danger of land mines and vengeful Serbs.


"Our message ... is: don't come yet, it's not safe. ... It's absolutely vital that this operation is not prematurely disrupted by a return that is not safe," the UNHCR's special envoy to the Balkans, Dennis McNamara, said at a news conference in Pristina.


At least two people have been killed and one injured by mines along on mountain tracks leading from Macedonia. Three refugees were reported hurt by mines close to the Albanian border Monday as they entered Kosovo over the mountains after being prevented from using the main road.


The UNHCR says it will probably take up to a month for NATO troops, which moved into Kosovo on a United Nations-sanctioned peacekeeping mission over the weekend, to make the region entirely safe.


As NATO moved in, Yugoslav troops and armor streamed out of Kosovo on Tuesday to beat a midnight deadline imposed by NATO forces to vacate the south of the ravaged Serb province.


A NATO military spokesman said some 20,000 Yugoslav troops, about half their forces in Kosovo, had left or were on their way out. He said he was confident the deadline would be met.


Peacekeeping troops and journalists found several sites with evidence of mass killings. Ethnic Albanians who fled a slaughter in April near Koronica, 75 kilometers southwest of Pristina, returned Tuesday to find mass graves strewn with bones and hair and charred, dismembered corpses lying where they died.


In all, villagers said, Serb forces killed 155 unarmed men, women and children on April 27 to 28. "From seven o'clock to 12 o'clock, what they found, they killed,'' said a survivor, Leke Nikmengjaj.


The first survivors to venture back to the village started to turn their horse cart into the woods at the sight of a journalist's car parked at the site, fearing it meant Serb forces had not really withdrawn.


Crying, they led journalists to three mass graves in a Muslim graveyard that they said contained 60 to 70 victims, and to a burned house where the incinerated, severed trunks and limbs of five men lay on a collapsing top floor. Villagers said a churchyard in the area held the graves of the Roman Catholic victims of the massacre.


Serb forces had been angered by a rebel ambush that killed seven Serbs, villagers said. Three fighters from the village took part in the ambush. Serb police, paramilitaries and soldiers occupied the village a day after the ambush, and started killing the next day, said Flora Merturi, a village woman who escaped. "They executed every man over 16 they could find,'' Merturi said. "Also women and children.''


The Serb forces shot their victims, burned homes and paid Gypsies to bury the dead, separating the corpses into Moslems and Catholics, Merturi said. The burials in the Moslem graves were shallow, leaving a hand and a shirt sleeve sticking out of the earth, the top of a head jutting out, a shoulder blade lying on the ground.


Ethnic Albanian refugees over the past three months have reported numerous massacres. Serb authorities largely closed Kosovo during the NATO bombing campaign, making it impossible to independently verify their accounts - until Serb forces began to withdraw Monday.


Since then, the reports have poured in. In the village of Velika Krusa, 60 kilometers southwest of Pristina, Dutch peacekeepers Tuesday discovered about 20 charred bodies at a house they said they would preserve as a crime scene for war crimes investigators.


On Monday, British troops in the southern town of Kacanik found mounds of earth with wooden markers which they believe Serb soldiers reburied individually from a mass grave containing 81 bodies to cover up a massacre. A cemetery worker in Djakovica, near Koronica, said he buried up to 200 victims of massacres, from killings that claimed up to 70 victims at a time.


Thousands of Kosovo Serbs, fearing reprisals from returning ethnic Albanians, joined the Serb military and police exodus in cars and tractors overflowing with family possessions. In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said 33,000 Serb civilians had fled the province.