By Patrick Markey
PUKE, Northern Albania — Little stirs under the blistering midday sun in this remote mountain campsite.
A battered radio cranks out dance tunes as five Italian soldiers lounge around a wooden table sharing bread and sauce with a crew of European aid workers.
Nearby, under a large tent, hundreds of boxes of biscuits, baby food and water sit waiting to be claimed.
Suddenly the early afternoon lethargy gives way to a flurry of activity.
Seven buses packed with tired, hot and hungry Kosovar Albanian refugees pull into the barren camp after a eight hours trundling along dusty roads under an army escort.
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Four hours’ drive from the Kosovo border, relief agencies in Albania’s remote, mountain region are helping refugees make the last leg on their journey back to their homeland. Puke is one of the final stops the refugees will make before heading back to an uncertain future across the border in Pristina, Pec and Prizren.
"That’s what we do here. We go from sitting around to suddenly dealing with up to 400 dehydrated, tired people who just want to go home," said Patrick McCaughey, an aid worker for Concern, one of the relief groups still working on the Albanian border.
Refugees pour from the buses toward a row of basic latrines; others snatch up bread, high-energy biscuits and water bottles.
Working with CARE and the World Food Program, Concern is supplying these last stragglers with basic supplies and family packs — boxes of oil, rice and pasta, enough to give them a start when they reach Kosovo. Tempers often flare as aid workers try to deal with small children, worried parents and sick seniors.
"We deal with a lot of hypertension, dehydration and fatigue. There are some medical problems with the children and the elderly," McCaughey said.
Sitting on a bus sponsored by the Saudi Joint Relief Committee for Kosovo, Hajrie Sogojeva, 65, reflected on the uncertainty awaiting her in Kosovo.
"We’re happy to be going home at least, but we don’t know anything about our house," she said. "I’ve heard my brother is still alive, but I don’t know where he is."
As the agencies begin to wrap up their operations, security has become a growing concern as some local Albanians express resentment at loss of work or relief supplies. Anger directed at Western relief groups translates into threats and open looting.
Convoys are escorted by NATO troops because robberies on the desolate roads are not uncommon. Two weeks ago, a black-powder bomb was detonated on the border of one nearby way station camp, aid workers said.
A few days later at the same camp Italian troops and police faced off against local Albanians, who, armed with automatic weapons, demanded the keys to vehicles and supplies. CARE workers quickly pulled out as troops called for helicopter back up.
"People started to appear with automatic weapons, so we decided to evacuate," said CARE worker David Grainger.
"When we came back the next day, the whole place had been looted. Six containers of medical supplies and food, all gone," he said.