Kosovo refugees wait between a memory and a future
By Tom Mintier
May 6, 1999
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
SCOPJE, Macedonia (CNN) -- They say they once lived normal lives, with houses and gardens to tend. Now the house is a tent and the garden is a muddy path to the food distribution center.
Many refugees say they once lived lives like many of ours, watching television on a Friday night, renting a movie at the corner video store, going with the family to a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon.
Now, because they are ethnic Albanians who once lived in Kosovo, they have been driven from their homes, ordered to turn over everything of value, ordered to flee or be killed.
On television, the refugees are faces passing in front of a camera, tired faces filled with fear, as they cross the borders into Macedonia or Albania.
Many are the elderly, women and children of families now divided, the young men separated from parents, wives and children and taken away by men with guns, with fate unknown.
On the Macedonian border at Blace, as the refugees pass by in the government's red-and-white buses filled to capacity, some stare at the rugged hillside across the road, beyond the trees. Over the hill is Kosovo. It may be a long time before most refugees can or will return.
They know this. It's in their faces, some with tears streaming. Old and young, the look is the same: the realization that life as they knew it just weeks or even days ago will never be the same.
As of this week, there were nearly a dozen refugee camps in Macedonia.
The camps are organized into neighborhoods, little more than rows of tents, each tent spray-painted with a letter and a number. The children go out to play with that same number written on the back of their hand, just in case they get lost.
When the refugees were forced out of Kosovo, many were forced to turn over their identity cards, bank account books, even the license plates from the family car. The cars were often taken from them further down the road.
Now, life's basics are provided for them -- a tent, food and water, even clothing provided by strangers whom they will never be able to thank for their generosity.
But given the choice, they would want none of it.
The men and women have firm handshakes. The food on their tables used to come from their own gardens, not relief workers.
The assistance, while appreciated, is difficult for many of them to accept.
In a real sense, I learned more about Kosovo in two hours I spent one afternoon in a tent in Macedonia than I could ever read in a book.
This week, I spent time with three families from Pristina slated to be living in the United States next week. They made me feel welcome in their temporary home, as we sat on the ground of a yellow tent numbered H-4, in the camp at Stenkovec.
To them, the United States is a strange country they have learned something about through the movies they used to rent. They said they had no family ties in the United States. Few, it seemed, had thought before about going there, so far away from Kosovo.
"If I could be sure somehow that any kind of epidemic could not be spread here, I would like to stay near Kosovo, because America is too far," offered one woman, who worried about the children getting sick. "But we are proud to go there because they've always supported us."
These families talked of their hopes of returning, one day, to Kosovo. Many other refugees are trying to stay closer by, in Germany, Belgium, Sweden.
"We're grateful to Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Bob Dole," one man said. "They have helped us very much. We consider their country our second country."
As they shared their concerns about starting over, I could not help but wonder what their lives would be like in six months or a year.
I wondered if they would be able to adapt to the fast-paced lifestyle that is so American.
I wondered, too, if any of them would ever think about not going back to Kosovo, about not going back to rebuild the memories of a house and a garden.
y: CNN's Patricia Kelly on how Kosovo is redefining NATO
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