The Age
As the eagle flies proudly, they say a final goodbye


Thursday 13 April 2000

They came waving the Albanian flag with its proud, black double-headed eagle: a symbol rooted in their fractured nation's ancient history of war and defiance.

In the mists of legend, they explained, two brothers, standing back to back, battled so fiercely against the invading Turks, they were said to have resembled such a creature. Since then, despite a succession of overlords, the eagle has always graced their flag.

But the half dozen carloads of Melbourne's Albanian community leaders who came to Bandiana, near Wodonga, yesterday, came not in defiance but in a sort of sad acceptance of the inevitable.

Like it or not, the 146 Kosovar refugees at Bandiana would be going home, either by unhappy agreement or forced removal. "So now we think this is the last thing the community can do for them," said Alil Musai, president of the Melbourne Albanian Community.

"We're just here to wish them well and support them in their decision. This is a last farewell."

Around 30 men, women and children, many from the large Albanian community in Dandenong, made the 300 kilometre drive after hearing on Tuesday night that all but six Kosovar families had reluctantly agreed to a government offer to return them home. Mr Musai said that did not mean the locals were happy with the stance of Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock.

"Politically? Honestly, up to a level we can understand him. But morally, frankly I don't know if they know what the word moral means."

These last of the Kosovars offered safe haven in Australia had been here a year, he said. Now they were celebrating the anniversary of trauma and torture with more trauma and pressure.

"But we don't know what further step we can take. It has been put to us as an ice wall and it's very hard to break through that cold thing."

Nevertheless, Mr Musai, who came to Australia 17 years ago from then Yugoslav Macedonia, appealed to the 22 absconders from Bandiana to return, saying that fleeing "is not our way". It would not be right for the local Albanian community to hide them, he added.

Azem Thaqi, whose cousin, Avdi, was waiting inside for him, said up to half of the Bandiana detainees were from eastern Kosovo, which was now behind Serbian borders. He said up to 30,000 eastern Kosovars had recently been sent from the region to Pristina.

Avdi's brother had sent pictures of their village, Llaplishnik, which had been completely destroyed. "They're not going home, as Mr Ruddock says. They have no homes to go to."

Others face death or suicide, said Dr Erik Lloga, who has been negotiating with Mr Ruddock on the refugees' behalf. He revealed that one man in the camp faced threats from both Serbs and Kosovars if he returned. He was called up by the Yugoslav army but refused "to participate in the mayhem and the terror".

"On the other hand he received what they call a white notice from the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) to fight on the other side. He refused that too: a very peaceful man, a man who is very well educated, a man who was a teacher, a man who could never see violence as a solution. But these arguments don't wash in a highly charged atmosphere ... so he fears dire consequences."

Yet the community members lined up patiently at the boundary control at Bandiana. Those inside had gathered on a hill, two of them also carrying Australian and Albanian flags, to wait as their friends were escorted to them.

For the next few hours they sat under gum trees, saying their goodbyes.

But when the Australian-Albanians left, there was some of the ancient anger. Those Kosovars who were not named to receive visits had not been allowed to approach the locals, they said.

They had also been confined to small designated areas cordoned off by plastic barriers. "It's like a sheep pen," said Mr Thaqi. Added Mr Musai: "This has gone from safe haven to detention centre to concentration camp."

When the flag came out, it was held low and drooping.

Original article