By Fatos Bytyci
BLLACE, Kosovo (Reuters) – A train that was used to ferry thousands of Albanians out of Kosovo during the 1999 NATO bombing will be made into a museum at the border crossing to remember Kosovo’s biggest exodus.
Kosovo said some 440,000 ethnic Albanians were expelled by the Serb army and police officers into what is now known as North Macedonia, the majority of them by train.
An old diesel locomotive and three passenger carriages used in 1999 are already in place and will become part of the exhibit that the government expects to open later next year.
As part of the 20th anniversary commemorations, dozens of victims who took the journey went back to the Bllace border crossing, where the Kosovo Red Cross had replicated life in the make-shift tented settlements that sprang up around the border at the time.
Kujtime Boletini, 55, says Serb soldiers wearing masks expelled her and her family.
“They took my brother, the son of my sister and seven other men. Six years later we identified the remains of my brother through DNA,” Boletini said at Wednesday’s event.
“Police told us you have to leave Kosovo, you have to go to Albania and you would never return to Kosovo.”
More than 13,000 people, mainly local Albanians, were killed in the 1998-99 war and 800,000, including those who took the train across the border into Macedonia, were expelled.
Belgrade launched a more brutal crackdown after the NATO military alliance launched air strikes against Serbian police and military forces on March 24, 1999.
“This would be a home of a collective memory where many generations would come and learn the first lesson: how expensive is the freedom and how much pain is the road to reach that freedom,” Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj told the crowd.
NATO moved into Kosovo in June 1999 following weeks of air strikes.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and is recognised by the United States and most EU countries, but Serbia and its major allies Russia and China remain adamantly opposed to Kosovo’s independence.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Alison Williams)