Elbasan, Albania — Visar Hyseni shares space with three members of his immediate family, 22 distant relatives and displaced residents of Kosovo, as well as piles of pots, pans and blankets, in a room here the size of a modest college dorm.
Each morning he walks around the garden outside the former Albanian army officers club. In the afternoon, a little volley ball, at an impromptu net on the front lawn.
For Visar, 26, and some 200 Kosovar refugees, this urban refugee camp established last month by the American Joint Distribution Committee is home, and will remain their home until the war in Kosovo ends. In the wake of this week’s collapse of peace negotiations between NATO and the Serbian government, the prospect of an imminent return to Kosovo appears unlikely — any settlement will be followed by months of reconstructing destroyed villages and removing Serbian planted land mines, which means that winter will come to Kosovo before Visar and his family do.
“We are waiting for the moment,” says Shaqir Hyseni, Visar’s uncle, sitting on a mattress in a second-floor room, which is lit by a pair of hanging bulbs.
The camp is the first one set up by the Joint in Albania. Another “model” camp, in a rebuilt basket factory nearby, is to start operations next week, eventually housing 600 refugees.
The Hysenis won’t leave Elbasan, a stagnant industrial town of 100,000, 33 miles southwest of Tirana, until “the police, the soldiers, the paramilitary are out of Kosovo,” Shaqir says taking a drag on a cigarette.
“We were told [by UN officials here] to prepare for the winter,” says Shauli Driter, the JDC representative in Albania. “Nobody knows” how long the refugees will remain here or in the other lands where they have found refuge since the war in Kosovo started in March.
“If peace comes tomorrow, they need water, they need food, they need doctors,” Driter says. “It is a never ending responsibility. We almost don’t sleep.”
The Joint, which resumed its humanitarian activities here in 1995 after Albania’s hard-line communist government fell, is considering a range of activities under the auspices of its emergency Kosovo relief fund, which has raised more than $3 million. The New York-based organization, funded by UJA-Federation, is among scores of government and non-government organizations working in the region now for the refugees.
In addition to the pair of refugee camps, which include recreational and educational programs, the Joint has provided thousands of mattresses and toys for refugees, established four medical clinics, and aided Albanian families who are providing housing for 60 percent of the nearly half-million ethnic Albanian refugees who have fled here.
Unlike the better-known camps where most refugees are housed in open air tents, the facilities established by the Joint afford the residents a measure of privacy, and protection from the late spring sun. There is no air conditioning, however, so residents must resort to fanning themselves.
Refugees were cooking meals in their rooms over small hot plates and kerosene stoves one morning this week, as Orsalba Galata, a Rome-based senior social worker for the Joint went door to door of the concrete two-story building, inquiring about the residents’ needs. The smell is of fresh paint and the sounds are of men at work and children at play.
“Jews can’t stand aside and say it is not our business,” says Driter, an Israeli whose parents survived the Holocaust.
“The Kosovo story reminds us of what happened in the Holocaust — getting people up in the middle of the night, killing them,” Driter says.
He says Jews owe an additional debt to the Albanians, who rescued virtually all of the country’s small Jewish population, as well as a few hundred Jews who escaped other European countries during World War II. “Albania,” Driter says, “was the only country where the number of Jews was higher [after the war] than before the Holocaust. If this country did so much for the Jews we have to help them.”
The JDC has a staff of two dozen people, including Kosovars, who work as physicians at the clinics, and Albanians, who serve as interpreters in Tirana, the country’s capital, and Elbasan, where some 9,000 Kosovar refugees have settled. The Elbasan municipality is cooperating with the Joint in renovating the crumbling military club, a functional site where a kitchen, shower, and laundry facilities are being installed.
“For them it is the Hilton,” Driter says.
The refugees at the JDC camp are healthy overall and their spirits upbeat, Galata says. She sees nothing but smiles as she makes her rounds. “Everyone you ask, they say they are fine. It is incredible.”
Youngsters attend Albanian schools in the morning. The adults spend their time reading, doing household chores, and visiting other local camps to determine the fate of missing relatives. Some attend Friday services in a nearby mosque.
“We are satisfied. We were welcomed in Elbasan,” says Visar, who is dressed in a “Corsica” T-shirt and blue sweat pants. He was an engineering student in Pristina when the Serbian offensive began. He spent two months in Macedonia before joining his family here, and discovered that his 54-year-old father had been killed in the family’s home town of Castriot in March by members of the Serbian military — led by the family’s one-time neighbors. “He was killed because he was Albanian.”
“The worst part,” says Hafiza Hyseni, Vasir’s mother, sitting by herself on a mattress, “is the day they burnt our house, the day they killed my husband.” Both were done the same day by Serbians, she says.
Will they feel comfortable returning to Kosovo if their former Serbian friends, who took part of the ethnic cleansing campaign, still live there?
“Never,” says Valdete, 21, Vasir’s sister. She too sits by herself staring into space. Do the Hysenis, Muslims, feel unusual receiving aid from a Jewish organization?
Vasir shakes his head. “No,” he says, “In war, Jews, Muslims help each other. Everyone helps everyone else.”