Ethnic Albanian agent watches grim drama ufold

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BRONX, N.Y. -- "Defending the National Cause and Human Rights of the Albanian People," reads the poster at the entrance of the Kosovatours International travel agency here. Agim Alickaj

Directly beneath the poster are cut-out logos of the resorts Sandals and Beaches. As suggested by this display, the agency's president, Agim Alickaj, is both a political activist and a regular agent.

An Albanian emigrant from Kosovo, Yugoslavia, he is a member of the Albanian Civic League, a lobbying group based in Washington; he also sells Sandals and other Caribbean resorts to his clients, comprising a mix of 90% Albanians and Bronx and nearby Yonkers residents.

But trips to Sandals are not a current priority for Albanians. "The good times, they are not now," said Alickaj. "We don't have something to celebrate or time to have vacations."

This former resident of the village of Decav is in mourning with the rest of his people. He had to interrupt his interview with Travel Weekly to discuss arrangements for a memorial service for three of his second cousins (aged 22, 30, and 65) who were shot in front of their house in Peja.

According to Alickaj, the Serbs were conducting a mass round-up of Albanians, telling everybody they had half an hour to leave -- when they arbitrarily shot his cousins.

Although the shooting occurred in late March, the family didn't know until four days later exactly what had happened. Finally, Alickaj heard the news from a man in Yonkers whose relatives, also from the same town, were part of the mass exodus. "There was no time to bury my cousins," said Alickaj. "They were left in front of their house because everybody else was told, 'You'll all be killed if you don't leave.'

"There are so many things we don't know" about what's really going on, said Alickaj -- and that uncertainty is what's really disturbing. I know my aunt was killed, but I don't know the details. My best friend, who's like my brother, is unaccounted for, and I don't know where he is."

The conflict in Kosovo also affecting the local Albanian community tradition of holding long memorial services. These days the services are cut short because there are so many of them, said Alickaj.

And there's no doubt that Kosovo's grave situation is affecting the agency. Currently, 80% of his business is gone, said Alickaj. The only people traveling to the Balkans right now are people en route to help their families, and major airlines have canceled all of their flights to Kosovo.

Alickaj sends Kosovo-bound clients on a route that involves flying to Rome and connecting there to an Albanian Air flight to Tirana. Flights are frequently canceled, Alickaj said. "You're never sure you can make it on the flight. Last week I sent a group and eight of them got stuck in Rome for three days."

Although no Americans are visiting Kosovo now, ironically, Alickaj once had a job promoting the province as a tourist destination. He was a deputy director of the Yugoslavia tourist office stationed in New York from 1985 to 1990.

His office, in fact, is decorated with posters from that era, showing Kosovo as a place full of breathtaking scenery and people dressed in folk costumes. Alickaj went back home in 1990, but disgusted by the Serbs' aggression, (note: I'm checking with him on how to put this correctly) he decided to return to the U.S. He opened a travel agency, setting in the Bronx, a major Albanian enclave.

Alickaj is optimistic that he can grow the 10% of his client base that is non-Albanian, especially since he moved to a new storefront location six months ago, which has been attracting walk-in business.

His optimism that business will get better is tempered by a sense of gravity for the plight of his people. In fact, while posing for a picture, he said, "I don't want to laugh -- though sometimes that's all that you can do in a bad time, laugh."

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