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Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Sun Apr 11 19:06:52 PDT 1999

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Americans Volunteer To Join KLA

By VERENA DOBNIK Associated Press Writer

YONKERS, N.Y. (AP) -- Hundreds of Americans in store-bought camouflage uniforms stood in the parking lot of a suburban New York hotel on Sunday, volunteering to fight the Serbs.

The men and women were ready for guerrilla war: They pulled shiny new combat boots and army-green sacks from their Volvos, Chevys and Mercedes-Benzes.

``Albanians are willing to die for freedom!'' yelled Joseph DioGuardi, head of the Albanian-American Civic League, to the more than 400 recruits in military formation.

``Yeah!'' responded 4-year-old Laura Muriqi, whose father, a Manhattan doorman, stood at attention in his camouflage uniform.

``It's dangerous, but it's the last chance to be free or die,'' said Remziga Gjonbalaj, tears in her eyes. About 500 family members and friends watched, weeping and cheering, in the lot outside the Albanian-run Royal Regency Hotel. Her brother, a waiter in a New York restaurant, was among the would-be soldiers leaving this week on charter flights from New York to Tirana, Albania.

They are to be trained there before attempting to cross the mountainous border sprinkled with land mines to join the Kosovo Liberation Army.

``I'm very happy I'm sending my son, I'm very proud,'' said Elfet Kodra, a mother clutching her youngest son's camouflage jacket.

Born in Brooklyn, 19-year-old Isa Kodra is a National Guard platoon sergeant who was helping with the training. On Sunday, he stood facing the makeshift battalion, an American flag gracing the sleeve of his camouflage shirt above an Albanian one. He's taking a leave of absence from the Guard to fight.

The families were told to say their last good-byes on this raw spring day at a swearing-in ceremony.

``Bye, daddy!'' said Laura, waving from her aunt's arms to her 34-year-old father, Feriz Muriqi, who joined up with his 31-year-old brother, Besim. Wearing her best leather shoes and snow white tights, she held up her tiny hand and shaped two fingers into a ``V.''

As the recruits placed their hands on their hearts, a soprano with an Albanian accent sang ``The Star-Spangled Banner,'' followed by the Albanian anthem. Then the crowd chanted ``U.S.A.!''

``Are you proud to be American?'' one speaker yelled from a platform bearing the red-and-black Albanian flag and an American flag. ``Yes!'' they answered, then broke into roars of ``Kosovo Liberation Army! Free Kosovo!''

That's the mission of Timmy Zherka, 31, who left his wife and three children, and a job as manager of a Manhattan restaurant, to fight. ``I'm anxious, but I'm not afraid. I'm going to fight for what we talk about here -- freedom, liberty, democracy.''

Some recruits spent time in the U.S. military or in the Yugoslav army, but most are untrained. Their uniforms from Army-Navy surplus stores were brand-new. They planned to join the Kosovo rebel force in a last-ditch effort to save hundreds of thousands of Albanians who have fled their decimated towns and villages. Most in the Yonkers parking lot had relatives there who are either dead or missing.

Sanije Bruncaj, 19, was toughened up for combat by her stint as a wide receiver -- and the only female player -- on her Yonkers high school football team. About 30 women were among the recruits.

A light rain began to fall as the military formation dissolved into tear-drenched hugs.

The Kuka family took snapshots. ``I'm happy to go, because they're raping women and killing children there,'' said Ymer Kuka, 56, who left his job at a Bronx pizzeria.

``If she were there,'' he said, squeezing his 1-year-old granddaughter Nora in his arms, ``they would kill her too.''

AP-NY-04-11-99 1946EDT

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