"There Are Too Many of Them"

Analysis of breaking news events.
April 30 1999 4:52 PM

"There Are Too Many of Them"

"She gave birth right on the mountain! Isn't that a trip?" Claudia Janiszewski said as she led me down the hall at Tirana's main maternity ward. The hall, its walls covered with decades of whatever that oily substance is that settles on walls, smelled of urine, medicine, and nausea. Claudia has that way of speaking that seems embarrassingly inappropriate in places dangerous and poor, but I had already decided that she and her husband, Henry, were my kind of people. They are the rare Americans who go to foreign countries and learn their language and customs. They also seem to have a knack for dangerous places. They lived in Albania for three years: Henry was working for the U.S. Treasury, trying to develop the banking sector, which placed him at the epicenter of the riots that broke out in 1997. Then they went to Russia, just in time for last August's crash, and then they decided to take it easy and moved to Colorado, buying a house just down the street from that school in Littleton.

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While they lived in Albania, Claudia founded a volunteer organization to help the abandoned babies living on the maternity ward. It was a modest nonprofit, with a budget of around $15,000 a year and absolutely no pizzazz to attract media attention and concomitant donations: Reporters would not return Claudia's phone calls, and, yes, someone once asked if Albania was in upstate New York. But when the war put Albania on the American map, Claudia raised about $20,000 in two weeks, and here she was, in Tirana, showing me around the maternity ward, where her organization's work is turning more and more toward caring for the Kosovar refugee women giving birth. The woman who gave birth on the mountain cries for days on end. It was her first child, and she did not know what to do. They walked and hid and walked for two weeks, her husband and a cousin's family and she, and she felt the pangs of labor and tried to suppress them for days until she couldn't anymore. When they arrived, both she and the baby were ill. Now the baby is better, but she won't eat and she cries all the time. When we entered the room she was, finally, asleep under a crude gray and brown wool blanket, and she sobbed in her sleep.

We went to see another woman. Toothless, with sunken cheeks and faraway eyes, she looked 45, but she was 28. Her family had been given an hour to get out of the house, but the 20-minute trip to Kukes, on the Albanian side, had taken all night because there were so many people going to the border. Like virtually all refugees with whom I have spoken, she claimed to be lucky because something did not happen to her: In this case, starting out very close to the border, she did not encounter any Serbs on the way, and nothing was taken from her family (which had not had the time to take anything from home anyway). Then they made the 14-hour bus trip from Kukes to Tirana, and two weeks later, she gave birth to her seventh child. Village women from Kosovo, if they are of child-bearing age, are, more often than not, either nursing or pregnant or both. There are about 20 Kosovar births a week at this maternity ward in Tirana. Exact figures are impossible to obtain, but hundreds of new Kosovars have already been born in both Albania and Macedonia.

"There are too many of them." This is the third or fourth sentence 26-year-old Sreten Koceski, an ethnic Macedonian who has lived in Tetovo his whole life, says to me. Greater Tetovo, which includes the mostly-Albanian villages around the city, has been majority-Albanian for as long as anyone can remember. But the town itself used to be split about fifty-fifty--until the refugees came. "It's not very pleasant for the Macedonians," says Sreten. "We feel we are in danger somehow."

Reader, this was a cheap trick: starting with babies, then introducing a man who is threatened by the sheer numbers of the Other. But interethnic relations, in the Balkans and elsewhere, are the province of cheap tricks and overwrought rhetoric. I put it off as long as I could--until my last day in the region, in fact--but I knew I would have to do it sooner or later: In the only part of the former Yugoslavia that is still holding on to some vision of different ethnic groups coexisting harmoniously, I had to ask their representatives what they think of one another.

Macedonia has, for the most part, preserved the convoluted structures that in the former Yugoslavia went under the name of Brotherhood and Unity but would have been better defined as Separate but Equal. The government was formed by a coalition that included two Macedonian and one Albanian party. Primary education is available in four languages: Macedonian, Serbian, Albanian, and Turkish. Both print and electronic media in different languages are available. At the same time, the Albanian party and one of the Macedonian parties in the ruling coalition have purely nationalist roots, and all existing political parties represent only one ethnic group. Multilingual education means that children of different ethnicities attend different schools and, if they pursue further education, are ultimately insulted (if they are not Macedonian) to confront an educational system defined by the Macedonian culture and language. And Macedonian-language media employ virtually exclusively ethnic Macedonians, while Albanian-language media employ ethnic Albanians, and so on. "It's not so much what the system defines," says Eran Fraenkel, the American executive director of Search for a Common Ground, an international organization that tries to do what its name says. "It's what the system produces: people who may never have contact with the other community."

So I ask Sreten Koceski whether he has any Albanian friends. "Sure," he says.

"How many?"

"At this moment I can say for sure--four or five. Not close personally, but good friends."

Then he tells me again that Albanians threaten Macedonians, sometimes attack them violently--especially now that there are so many refugees here, he says. There have been a couple of incidents just in the last two weeks.