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Refugees "tired and relieved"

The first wave of Kosovo refugees, many carrying only the clothes they been wearing for 35 days and nightmarish tales of violent treatment on their journeys, arrived in Slovakia relieved to find themselves out of the Macedonian camps and in a country offering "good will," humanitarian aid officials said.
Upon arrival to Bratislava's Milan Rastislav Štefánik International airport at 20:20 on Wednesday, May 5, the first group of 90 refugees - consisting of 35 children, 33 women and 22 men - were immediately transported to a quarantine camp in Adamov. At Adamov, Shukry Xanaj, an Albanian who has lived in Slovakia as a photographer for the past eight years and volunteered to act as camp interpreter, told The Slovak Spectator that the refugees were doing well in spite of their long journey.


The youngest and the oldest Kosovar refugees in Slovakia exchange words at a camp in Adamov.
photo: Courtesy of Mária Čierna

The first wave of Kosovo refugees, many carrying only the clothes they been wearing for 35 days and nightmarish tales of violent treatment on their journeys, arrived in Slovakia relieved to find themselves out of the Macedonian camps and in a country offering "good will," humanitarian aid officials said.

Upon arrival to Bratislava's Milan Rastislav Štefánik International airport at 20:20 on Wednesday, May 5, the first group of 90 refugees - consisting of 35 children, 33 women and 22 men - were immediately transported to a quarantine camp in Adamov. At Adamov, Shukry Xanaj, an Albanian who has lived in Slovakia as a photographer for the past eight years and volunteered to act as camp interpreter, told The Slovak Spectator that the refugees were doing well in spite of their long journey.

"Everyone is doing good," he said. "But they had a hard trip. They were beaten, they had all of their documents taken away so they've lost their [official] identities. They said they had to flee, and they say that they blame the [Slobodan] Milosevič government for everything."

The refugees were quarantined at the camp for one week before they were transferred to the Gabčikovo site on May 11 and 12 that housed Balkan refugees during the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1997. Before the relocation, they underwent medical examinations at Fakultna Hospital in Bratislava on May 6, where doctors said that, excepting a "few diabetics and non-serious cases of dysentery", the refugees were healthy but mentally and physically exhausted.

Maria Kovačičová, an eye doctor at the hospital who volunteered to assist in the examinations of 54 refugees on May 6 and 36 on May 7 reported that no serious illnesses had been detected, but added that the long journey had left them listless and in disarray. "They were very disorganised," she said. "In the waiting room they were hungrily eating cans of food with bread and drinking many bottles of water. It was very messy."

The camp at Gabčikovo is a transformed technical university building which would now pass as a two-star hotel, said Migration Office Director Vladamír Belo-Caban. The camp was prepared with 500 refugees in mind, but Migration Office representatives said that they would offer shelter to more if necessary.

The refugees can stay at Gabčikovo until the end of 1999 or the end of the conflict in Yugoslavia, said Ana Šidová, a lawyer for the Migration Office, who said that the all refugees could also apply for extensions in the length of their stays. Šidová added that the total cost for refugee-housing operations had so far exceeded 80 million crowns.

The second wave of refugees, which was expected to bring an additional 163 Kosovar Albanians and arrive in Bratislava on May 12, was cancelled. No official explanation has yet been offered, but the next wave is expected on May 21.

According to Julián Lučansky, director of the Bratislava District II Psychological Services Center, refugees on the run are subjected to "one of the most extreme forms of stress known to humans... stress that is permanent and will never go away." Although camp organisers said they were prepared for the worst-case emotional scenarios, reports so far have said that the refugees were in better condition than had been expected considering their plight.

"I was quite surprised," said Mária Čierna, public information officer for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Bratislava. "We are accustomed to seeing the refugees in very bad shape, on the verge of tears. It is evident that [the Kosovo refugees] are in very deep trauma, but they are also happy to be here and they want to start getting rid of their troubles."

Discussing her trip to the camp in Adamov, Čierna said that she had visited the refugees individually to take care of immediate concerns and needs. The two things they most desired, she said, were sleep and food.

"The camp was very quiet and many people were asleep," she said. "Alos, many people asked about specific types of food, such as potato goulash, gravies and stewed vegetables. They also asked for chicken and fish more so than pork."

In the exhaustion of the refugees is mirrored the long track - often hundreds of kilometers-many of the refugees fled before reaching the Macedonian border. Traveling on foot, often without food, most of the refugees reached Stankovac, the largest refugee camp in Macedonia, utterly worn out, Čierna said. After a month there and another week in Blace, "an outside camp on the Macedonian border with no assistance or shelter," they made their journey to Slovakia

Now, according to both Čierna and Xanaj, the refugees seem relieved that their forced journey is over and feel thankful for Slovakia's hospitality while they await future relocation to their homes in Kosovo.

"All the refugees hope that they can eventually go back to their homes, but they came to Slovakia now because they wanted to come," Xanaj said. "Conflicts with the Serbs have been going on down there for centuries and nothing will change until there is a free and separate Kosovo."

How you can help

Since the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis, many citizens have contacted the UNHCR to offer assistance: so many so that the group has filled pages in a notebook with the names of potential volunteers, Čierna said. But, while services are certainly appreciated, she added, donations may be the most helpful service citizens can provide.

For those who would prefer to volunteer time, Čierna said that the best thing for citizens to do would be to arrange some sports activities for the younger refugees, adding that physical contact is the most therepeutic remedy for the Kosovo Albanians at this time. They can easily become depressed when not preoccupied with any activity, she said,

"Boredom can be a big problem now, especially for the younger people," she said. "With the bad feelings and memories they have right now, it's linked to having nothing to do."

According to the UNHCR, donations can be made to Red Cross (07-367-157), UNICEF (money donations can be deposited at Ľudová Banka to the account: 4000 915 305/3100 VS 0299 Kosovo), Slovenská humanitná rada (bank account: 4000684500/3100 or phone number: 07-5542-3661) and others available through the UNHCR offices Šturovo street in Bratislava.

To aid the Lutheran Church effort, send donations to ČSOB bank, account number 8002-902031973/7500.

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