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Monday, April 26, 1999 Published at 21:03 GMT 22:03 UK


Kosovo refugees settle in

Locals brought them food and blankets during their first day

By BBC North of England Correspondent Richard Wells

Kosovo: Special Report
Refugees from the conflict in Kosovo have been settling in at two centres in Leeds.

The group of 161, the first to arrive in the UK under the UNCHR evacuation programme, arrived on a chartered flight from Skopje in Macedonia.

A banner saying "Welcome Kosovans" was quickly erected at the entrance to Leeds-Bradford Airport, where the plane touched down.

[ image: The refugees say they are grateful to the UK]
The refugees say they are grateful to the UK
During the first full day of their stay in the UK, people who live near the centres arrived with food and blankets, indicative of the warmth of the Yorkshire people towards those who have suffered so much in recent weeks.

According to the Refugee Council, who organised the airlift, most of the refugees had lost relatives and loved-ones in their departure from Kosovo.

Privations forgotten

They had walked for days to the safety of Macedonia and then suffered several weeks of mud and overcrowding in one of the refugee camps erected to house them.

[ image: However, most refugees want to go home as soon as it is safe]
However, most refugees want to go home as soon as it is safe
On the three-and-a-half-hour flight from Skopje to Leeds, the privations of the last few weeks were briefly forgotten as children were given fizzy drinks by the Bulgarian crew.

The chief steward Ventislav Shipkaliev spoke briefly to reporters after the plane landed.

He is a veteran of 12 mercy flights from Macedonia to safe havens in several parts of Europe.

Brits in Balkans
In the early days of such flights, he said, refugees were herded onto planes not knowing where they were going or being given the chance to say whether they wanted to leave an area so close to their homes.

In this case, he said, everyone wanted to come to the UK - and there was huge relief and delight when the plane touched down.

[ image: Many of the refugees have lost loved ones]
Many of the refugees have lost loved ones
Gentiana Zogjani, who is four, was pictured in many British newspapers on Monday, waving to cameras as she stepped from the plane at Leeds-Bradford Airport.

What the lenses did not reveal was that only hours before she had been reunited with her father.

Byram Zogjani said he had been separated from his family in Kosovo by Serbian troops and marched with others to a forest.

He feared they would all be killed, but during shooting he escaped and then embarked on a long march to safety.

Adults may seek work

The two centres set up for the refugees have been prepared by Leeds City Council.

The refugees are to receive financial assistance, the 70 children on the flight are being assigned schools to go to, and adults will be able to look for work.

The refugees will be allowed to stay in the UK for the next 12 months.

They could apply for asylum but most have indicated that while they are happy and grateful to be in the UK, they wish to return to their homes in Kosovo once it is safe to do so.

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