The Age
Hope for new life fades for Kosovars

"Please don't go Kosovo, please," a child pleads.

By FARAH FAROUQUE

Friday 7 April 2000


It was a sunny day at the Bandiana haven near Wodonga yesterday but tears rained on the cheeks of weary women and children. A band of men stood back, but stoicism defeated their despondent faces.

This group of Kosovars were told emphatically again yesterday by the federal Immigration Minister, Mr Philip Ruddock, that they would be repatriated. He flew down from Canberra to tell them personally.

But despite the minister's hardline, they keep hoping.

"Maybe you can help?" asks Mrs Amtigoma Mehmeti, the mother of newborn twins Edison and Egon. She says the prospect of going back to Kosovo fills her with fear. "My babies are born here. They are Australian."

For Mrs Misreme Iseni, formerly of Presheva, a Serbian stronghold, there is no hope of reclaiming her home. If they returned, her husband, who refused to join the Serbian army to "fight his brothers", would face a jail term, she says.

When her family is repatriated, she insists they will face an uncertain future in a refugee centre in Pristina - a city she does not know.

She has acquired a taste for the peace in Australia and wants to make her new life here. "Sometimes I forget my name. I'm in big stress," Mrs Iseni says.

The chairman of the Australian-Albanian National Council, Mr Eric Lloga, stood at Sydney Airport nearly a year ago with the Prime Minister, Mr John Howard. They welcomed the first group of Kosovars, who are ethnic Albanians, to Australia.

Now, at Bandiana, he does not smile so much and comforts another group as they prepare for tomorrow's compulsory charter flight back to Kosovo.

Mr Lloga has a different view from the Federal Government on what should be the fate of the refugees who have been asked to leave Australia. He feels many more should be permitted to stay and says the group from Presheva have a particularly strong case for refugee status. "They are truly displaced persons," he said.

At yesterday's private meeting with Mr Ruddock, the families put their case for a reprieve through a group spokesman, Professor Xhelal Merovci, a language professor back in Kosovo.

But Mr Ruddock, who spent more than an hour speaking to the group of more than 50 families, remained steadfast. Unless they produced new and compelling facts they would have to be on the flight, he said.

Mr Ruddock's spokesman said the minister had "cleared up misconceptions" about the situation the Kosovars would face when they returned. Nobody, he said, would be repatriated to an unsafe area.

But when their history tells them Kosovo is unsafe, these reassurances have not allayed their concerns.

Mrs Miradji Halimi, 63, is one of the oldest women at the haven. When she fled her home in Kosovo, she walked for 24 hours and hid from the Serbian soldiers in the mountains for two nights.

She is only certain of fear. "My home there is war," she said, speaking though an interpreter. She cries silent tears, crumpled, as children weep loudly around her.



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