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Utahn stunned by plight of Kosovar refugees

A Utahn helping refugees in Macedonia says most Kosovars left in that republic are agonizing about whether to start home now, wait until land mines can be cleared or resettle abroad.

"Those returning are doing so by every mode possible," Gerald Brown told the Deseret News. "Many take cabs, some drive tractors they managed to get into Macedonia, many walk. Some villages hire buses."Brown, 48, works for the International Organization of Migration, a nonprofit group that specializes in providing services to refugees. He is stationed at the Skopje, Macedonia, processing center, a converted hog farm.

His wife, Mary, and their 2 1/2-year-old-son, Jack, live in Kanab.

He and his family moved from New York City to southern Utah last October, as his wife is a native Utahn and her parents recently retired to Kanab. In early April, colleagues he met during other work abroad with refugees called and asked him to join the effort to help Kosovars in Macedonia.

From Thursday through Tuesday, Brown answered questions that the Deseret News posed by e-mail.

The Skopje processing center serves all refugees in Macedonia who are going to the United States for resettlement. Across the street are two large refugee camps, the Stenkovec I and Stenkovec II camps, which President Clinton visited Tuesday.

During his interviews with refugees, Brown heard shocking stories of Serb cruelty. One youth said he learned his home had been burned to the ground by watching news coverage on Macedonian television.

"He later learned from neighbors who had made their ways safely to Macedonia that his parents and brothers had been murdered by Serb paramilitary before the house was burned," Brown said.

Two months ago, a woman saw her husband and two sons taken from their home by Serb military forces. She has not heard from them since.

"The cruelty of the Serbs in Kosovo is striking," Brown wrote. They didn't simply kill people. They often taunted and tortured their victims first. Often the perpetrators were young, drunken men who were whipped into a frenzy by their paramilitary leaders, he said.

At the height of the refugee crisis, about 250,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo were in camps in Macedonia, Brown said. But since Serb troops began withdrawing from Kosovo, he said, many people have returned to Kosovo.

NATO experts and humanitarian agencies hoped that more people would wait before returning. According to Brown, they worried that the returnees would face hazards from land mines, Serb troops, booby traps and other dangers.

"No one knows for sure how many have returned already," he wrote to the Deseret News. Meanwhile, the program to resettle refugees in the United States continues at a significantly slower pace.

"A refugee lady with a scared face asked me last Thursday, after I had finished taking information from her family in preparation for the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) interview, if she might ask a question," Brown said. She then asked "if she and her family would be allowed to keep their clothes in the United States.

"I sought clarification and learned that there was a rumor among the refugees in Stenkovec II that all refugee clothing was taken away, upon entry in the United States, and burned. Heads were purportedly shaven as well."

Brown did his best to put the fears to rest. "All these poor folks need is one more thing to worry about," he said.

What allowed the nightmare to happen? According to Brown, it was "years of ethnic hatred, plus an authoritarian leader willing to increase his wealth and power, plus testosterone and alcohol, plus a world willing to stand by and watch."