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Thursday, April 1, 1999 Published at 14:25 GMT 15:25 UK

World: Europe

'Hello? Are you still alive?'

Hamide phones Pristina but there is no one home

By BBC News Online's Hanna Bacon

"I ask them 'Are you still alive?' I can ask nothing else." Every day a Kosovo Albanian - who wishes to be identified only as Hamide - telephones her family back in the Kosovo capital of Pristina.

It is 31 March and today is the first time there has been no reply. But with a Serb curfew in place there is no choice but to stay at home - if indeed their home is still standing.

Kosovo: Special Report
Ever since she sought asylum in the UK last August, Hamide, a 38-year-old campaigning journalist, has been fighting her battle for a free Kosovo from her north London council house.

She has become heavily involved with the Kosovo Information Centre and has been quoted by the UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

Hamide speaks vigorously in support of Nato air strikes but fears her words may have made her family a target for Serb forces.

But she is not troubled by the suggestion that the UK Government is using her as a propaganda tool to convince the British public of its involvement in Nato air strikes.

"We have the same aim. Whoever is in favour of stopping air strikes is in favour of fascism, of another holocaust. Because [Serb President] Milosevic wants to finish with Albanians," she says.

'The West owes us'

"We are two million people. We are unarmed. The West owes us because they made sanctions on arms to the KLA." Now, she says, western nations will have to arm the KLA if they want to avoid or delay sending in Nato ground troops.

[ image:
"Nato, just do it. Send ground troops" reads a sign in the living room
"If they send ground troops public opinion would turn against them - I speak now like a politician - so better to risk Albanian lives."

And there is no doubt Albanians will rise to the call from their "defence minister " Halil Bicaj, who this week called on Kosovo Albanians to take up arms now that the Serb military machine seems to have been weakened.

To those who would say that air strikes have simply increased the suffering of Kosovo Albanians, she says: "With Nato or without Nato they would do this - only slower."

Witness to horrors

Hamide says that while working as a journalist in Kosovo she witnessed countless acts of Serb brutality.

On 9 March last year, Hamide says she was attacked after photographing a Serb journalist beating an Albanian demonstrator during a protest in Pristina.

She told BBC News Online of unimaginable horrors in a small village in the Drenice area.

"I have seen bodies - 14 men in a lorry covered in a white sheet, naked. Their fingers were cut, genitals cut, cigarette burns on their faces, gouged eyes. They were unarmed civilians tortured in front of their families in their [own] homes," she said.

She says she had also seen the body of a woman, seven months pregnant, with her head shot away, and the corpse of an old man horribly mutilated.

As the situation in Kosovo deteriorated, Hamide's brother convinced her to join him in London and she did so last August for the sake of her three children.

But she says: "I feel I betrayed my people [by leaving]. I feel helpless."

'Everybody wants to go back'

What about the refugees seeking shelter in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro? Can they ever go home? "No one thinks to stay long," she says. "Everybody wants to go back."

Hamide paints a grim picture of a people subjected to years of intimidation on all levels of daily life in Kosovo. Albanians there account for 94% of the population but have no right to the housing, education and health care enjoyed by Serbs.

In 1990, she says, schools and universities were closed, forcing Kosovo Albanians to educate their children at home.

About 170,000 people - from miners to lawyers - were sacked and replaced with Serbs in a calculated and systematic effort to "Serbisise" Kosovo. It was a strategy, she says, dreamed up by Serb academics back in Belgrade.

So how can they ever live in peace with their Serb neighbours? She says the answer for her is pure and simple - an independent Kosovo after a long and bloody battle that has only just begun. "Whoever survives will be free in that country. We don't fight for land, we fight for freedom, for human rights."

She picks up the phone to try once more to contact her family in Pristina. Still no reply.

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