EFEBy Mimoza Dhima Tirana

Two decades ago, Kosovo Albanians bore witness to the greatest displacement of a European population since World War II, and their neighboring citizens in Albania and Macedonia welcomed them in a show of solidarity.

About half a million refugees from Kosovo abandoned their homes and traveled to Albania after NATO forces began airstrikes from Mar. 24, 1999 in a bid to drive out the Serbian armed forces of authoritarian President Slobodan Milosevic during the Kosovo War.

"We shared bread with them and treated them as part of the family," Sami Hajdini, who sheltered a mother and child from the town of Suva Reka for two months, told EFE. "We Albanians are very hospitable people."

Another half a million sought refuge in the country that is now called the Republic of North Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians make up 20-25 percent of the population of 2.1 million inhabitants.

The displacement of Kosovo Albanians reached its peak after NATO began its strikes against Serbian military and police targets as part of a 78-day campaign.

The refugees that went to Macedonia did so on crammed trains, while others journeyed to Albania on foot in long caravans, on tractors or in other vehicles.

The majority of refugees who came to Albania were welcomed into family homes, while the rest were housed in camps, sports centers, stadiums, abandoned factories, mosques and any other buildings that served as living quarters.

The main entry point into the country was the small northeastern city of Kukës, whose inhabitants are well known for having helped out their Kosovo Albanian "brothers".

On Apr. 16 every year, Kukës commemorates the 1999 exodus with several activities, including a symbolic crossing of the border into Kosovo.

And refugees were not only welcomed by Albanian citizens in the north of the country, they were also given shelter in the west by the Ghegs, an ethnic group that has a similar dialect and tradition, and also by the Tosks in the south.

The effort on the part of the Albanians to assist their neighbors from Kosovo saw individuals going beyond their means to provide help based on their ancestral traditions, which dictate that homes "belong to God and its residents."

A relatively poor country of three million inhabitants being able to provide shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees, whose quality of life had been better than that of the host population, was unprecedented in Europe.

To cope with the wave of refugees, NATO sent a humanitarian mission of 8,000 soldiers to Albania, which was a first in the history of the Alliance.

The Spanish government at the time sent 400 military personnel and set up camps in Hamallaj, where some 5,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees were given shelter.

With the exodus of Kosovo Albanians, Milosevic sought to destabilize its fragile neighbor Albania, which two years beforehand had been on the brink of civil war following the collapse of banks that frittered away the savings of most of the population.

Mar. 24 is an important day for Kosovo and it paved the way to its liberation from Serbia and its subsequent unilateral declaration of independence, which happened on Feb.17, 2008.

During the Kosovo War, more than 11,000 Kosovo Albanians, including women, children and the elderly, were killed, while another 4,000 people disappeared.