The tide turns: Kosovo Albanians return home as Serbs flee
91,000 of estimated 860,000 refugees have returned to Kosovo
June 16, 1999
BLACE, Macedonia (CNN) -- Thousands of exiled Kosovars jammed border crossings in Macedonia and Albania on Wednesday despite warnings from international aid workers and peacekeeping troops that the Serbian province was not yet safe.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said about 5,000 refugees crossed into Yugoslavia from Albania on Tuesday, and 2,800 entered the country from Macedonia. The swarm of humanity, which only recently had flowed the other way, continued to reverse itself Wednesday.
UNHCR says about 91,000 of the estimated 860,000 Kosovo refugees -- mostly ethnic Albanians -- have returned to Yugoslavia since NATO's 11-week air war ended Thursday. As the refugees return, the Serbs -- who dominate Yugoslavia's government, army and police but are a minority in Kosovo -- hurriedly prepare to leave.
UNHCR and troops with the KFOR peacekeeping mission have repeatedly warned refugees to wait a few more days before attempting to go home. The NATO-led force needs more time to remove mines planted by the Yugoslav army and ethnic Albanian rebels, said Brig. John Hoskinson, the commander of a detachment of British engineers in Kosovo.
"Refugees must be aware that until we can give some sort of guarantee that the routes are clear of mines, then they must wait and wait for us to assist them in their repatriation," Hoskinson said Wednesday.
But at the border posts, UNHCR can't stop the refugees from going back. Aid workers at least try to keep an accurate count, and the agency has set up way stations along the roads to supply returning Kosovars with food and water during their journey.
"I know that it's dangerous, but I am not afraid. That's why I'm going," said Flanzi Gashi, a Pristina woman who fled to Macedonia during the conflict.
At the same time, Kosovo's Serb population continued to flee the province, packing into buses leaving Pristina in a panicked exodus driven by fear of reprisals by their onetime neighbors.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says about 33,000 people -- mostly Serbs -- have left despite promises of protection by NATO troops in KFOR. Most have gone to the remainder of Serbia or to Montenegro, Serbia's sister republic in the Yugoslav federation.
Many of those who come back find their towns devastated by fighting and by what the refugees call a campaign of terror waged by the Serb-led Yugoslav army against ethnic Albanians.
Families like the Rexepes, in the Kosovo town of Stimlje, spent Wednesday counting their losses. They were a wealthy family with a big house and four stores: All have been burned to the ground.
"We've lost everything, all our life's savings," one family member said.
Albanian businesses all over the town have been wrecked, from the hair salon to the hamburger joint. By contrast, properties belonging to the few Serbs who lived in Stimlje are untouched.
KFOR's commander, British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, is promising to administer an evenhanded peace in Kosovo. Jackson urged Serbs to stay put Wednesday.
"I beg you not to make the number any greater," he said. "Stay at home, we will look after you."
But the Serbs -- including Kosovo's Serbian Orthodox bishop, Artemije Radosavljevic -- have shown little confidence in KFOR so far. Radosavljevic announced Wednesday he is leaving the headquarters of his diocese in Prizren, fearing German KFOR troops there will be unable to protect him.
But the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Yugoslav government urged Serbs to remain in Kosovo. The province is considered the cradle of the Serbian nation and the home of its church, though the population was 90 percent ethnic Albanian before the war.
The church's displeasure was evident Tuesday as it blamed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for the situation in Kosovo, urging him to step down.
Ethnic tidal waves rush in and out of Kosovo
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