Social work on the frontline

May 7, 1999

Tirana

Tal Gashi, 21, was in his third year studying electro-engineering, computing and telecommunications at Pristina University when war broke out in Kosovo.

He had just been accepted to complete his fourth year at university in Vienna, which luckily has copies of his passport and other documents - the Serbs took all his documents when he fled Kosovo into Montenegro.

"I had nothing to do with politics or the Kosovo Liberation Army. I don't believe in guns but if I have to fight to return to my country and join the KLA I will. The KLA and Nato is our only hope now," he says from the relative safety of a transit camp in Albania.

"I stayed in Pristina for 12 days during the bombing. I was in a basement with 12 of my university colleagues. Every night we used to go out after dark to search for KLA but they were nowhere.

"I can't forgive them for starting this then running away and leaving the civilians to suffer. When our food ran out I decided to leave via Belgrade. I couldn't imagine walking 150 kilometres to Albania. I speak good Serbo-Croat so, without people knowing I was Albanian, I was able to get a train to Belgrade where I arrived the day Milosevic's Socialist party headquarters was blown up.

"After taking two buses I arrived at the Montenegrin border where Serb soldiers got on to check for deserters.

"I was the only Albanian and when they saw my Albanian identity documents they ordered me off. I thought they were going to kill me but they asked if I had any links to the KLA and any guns. I just told them they could kill me if they wanted but I was a student and had nothing to do with politics. I was honest and after questioning me for an hour and a half they let me go."

After two weeks without food and begging from other families Mr Gashi got a bus to Tirana on April 24. He only had the telephone number of his family at the sports hall transit camp in Tirana, but he found them.

His parents, who were both teachers at a high school in Prizren, brother and sister all left when the Serbs began burning Albanian shops and homes.

His mother, Nazmuje, said: "The police were looking for young men and intellectuals, especially teachers, so we left in our car for the Albanian border at 1pm. It was only 20 kilometres away but the car that hit the mine at the border killing five people was just before us. That meant we stayed in a queue for ten hours and didn't get to Kukes in Albania till noon the next day.

"At the border they took our documents and car registration number. On the way to Tirana our car broke down and we were almost robbed by Albanian gangsters. Some Kosavars rescued us and we paid some Albanians DM120 (Pounds 40) to tow us to Tirana."

Now they all sleep in chairs in the sports hall transit camp along with 5,000 other refugees. The heat, noise and smell is stifling and the food minimal. Tal will try to approach the Austrian embassy to see if he can trace his university documents in Vienna and perhaps get temporary asylum there for his family while he completes his studies.

In a camp at a swimming pool complex on the other side of Tirana a group of young students are helping in the humanitarian effort. They include lawyers, teachers, social workers, nurses and actors working for the Albanian Youth Council.

Armelo Bega, 21, and Drtan Seola, 20, are both in their second year at Tirana University studying social sciences.

Ms Bega says: "The idea is to make refugees feel as if they were at home. We want to integrate them with Albanian teenagers and children - they are our sisters and brothers. We document their stories of crimes and listen to them in order to give them emotional support. We try to help the women who have been raped. They won't talk to us yet because of the shame but other relatives have told us who has suffered."

Ms Seola adds: " I'm not fully qualified and I am in shock. All I can do is to go back in two weeks and talk about what they've seen and experienced.. They don't want their stories published."

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