Decent, hard-working people: are these Mr Clark's gangsters?

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The Independent Culture
"ONCE WE had a country and we thought it fair, look in the atlas and you'll find it there. We cannot go there now my dear, we cannot go there now" - WH Auden, 1939.

All week we have watched them. Tractors, lorries, coaches, cars - all crowded with the lost people of Kosovo. We have seen them coming on foot, too, holding what few belongings they managed to save, carrying their children and their old people. It is the saddest procession I have ever seen. There have been times, when, standing at the border, I have struggled to believe the evidence of my eyes, when I have asked if the weeping and traumatised people, those ragged and exhausted creatures, really belong in this time and place: Europe, nineteen hundred and ninety nine.

Not your Europe or my Europe, mind you. Not the Europe of espresso bars and bookshops and museums, but four hours from London all the same. Still part of our continent and still part of our time. One couple and their two little boys came across at the start of the week. The man sat in the driver's seat of the car and was crying. He was ashamed of this and covered his face with a blanket. His wife said she wanted to say something. "The fires are everywhere. The fires are everywhere," she said.

The woman was a civil engineer and her husband a teacher. The two boys in the back were looking at their parents weeping. At first I thought they were embarrassed, and then the younger boy reached forward and put his hand on his father's shoulder. His father, who had hidden his face from us, then leaned over and spoke: "If you want to help, then help quickly. The people are starving, the people are dying. Help us, help us quickly." He was speaking not to us, of course, but to Nato. And, having said his few words, the man drove on with his family, following the convoy of the dispossessed to the crowded refugee camps at Kukes, in Albania.

By now there are many of you who feel they have seen and heard and read too much of this misery. A colleague on the phone from London during the week described how she struggled to watch the news these days. She felt overpowered by the terrible images that kept flowing out of Albania. Up here in Kukes there is no off button. There is no other channel to switch to.

Please don't read that as a complaint. I am here because I want to be. I don't know of another story more important or more urgent. But there is no going home at night from this story. The town of Kukes is crammed with refugees and their stories. There is the old man who sits around the yard of the house all day. He keeps to himself and doesn't talk much. He saw his two sons shot dead by the Serbs. There is a family I came across on the street nearby who were standing around crying (you see this so often). And when I asked why, the father explained that he had just returned from Switzerland and, against all odds, had found his wife and three children in the street. "We are crying with happiness," he explained.

There are several refugee families sharing our house, and they have become our friends. There is "Easy", the genial chef from Mitrovica, and his wife and two little children. "Easy" does the shopping each day and keeps the house in some sort of order. The kids - Medina, aged seven, and her brother Din, four - have become complete pets. In a houseful of war-wearied reporters, cameramen, producers and engineers, they weave a magical spell. Din found a Hallowe'en mask the other morning and roamed the house "frightening" everybody. After a night filled with the rumble of Nato jets overhead, it is a kind of blessing to wake and hear their laughing voices.

There is Ilir and his brother Bekem, who were driven with their families from the town of Prizren. Ilir is a jazz pianist, and Bekem ran his own clothing stall in the central market.

And then there is Arber, who this week found his father. I had noticed that everywhere we went he would ask among the crowds if they had heard any news of the men of Gjakova. This same young boy had spent hours translating the refugees' accounts of how the men in the convoys were being abducted. And so Arber was afraid for his father. And then on Wednesday night we pulled up outside the house and Ilir ran out shouting and gesticulating. I did not understand what was said and was only conscious of Arber jumping out of our car and racing across the gravel. Near the door he turned around and shouted: "My father is here; he is safe."

That night we met Arber's father. He was exhausted and unshaven but he was alive. We drank his health and he and Arber went off on their own for a celebratory meal. Later in the week we all watched the news reports of Bill Clinton's visit to Germany and listened to his rousing defence of human rights and mutual tolerance.

"Easy" and the rest of the boys were not really convinced. They wonder if Clinton really intends to fight on until victory. They fear a diplomatic fudge that will leave Milosevic in power, and safe to fight another day. They also heard the US President urge them not to be vengeful. They are not, as it happens; they just want to go home. As WB Yeats wrote: "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart." Thinking of the Americans' refusal to contemplate fighting Milosevic on the ground, where it matters, I remembered another line of Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Mr Milosevic certainly has all the passionate intensity. As for Western conviction, I can only say that the refugees here were much more impressed with Tony Blair's speech in Macedonia than they were with Clinton's in Germany. They believe that Mr Blair will not let them down.

However, it was the statement of another distant politician that really upset "Easy" and the others. A colleague in London had faxed to us the remarks of Alan Clark, the MP for Kensington and Chelsea, who warned of criminal gangs descending on Britain, hidden among the refugees. He also wondered where the refugee children would be educated (did he fear the corruption of our schools?).

I am not sure how many refugees Mr Clark has met. It could well be that his statement was based on his own solid research rather than on nasty prejudice. Here in Kukes we have no way of knowing.

However, I have met a great many of these refugees. I have interviewed scores of them in Albania and Macedonia. And for two weeks now I have lived with several refugee families. I know that "Easy" and his family and Ilir, Bekem and Arber are the kind of decent, hard-working people we should be proud to welcome to Britain. They are not liars or cheats or drunks. They most certainly are not criminals. The simple truth is that the overwhelming majority of refugees just want to go home. They don't want to be exiled in Britain or anywhere else. "Easy" wants us to come and visit him in Kosovo once it has been liberated. "You will come and I will cook a big meal and we will party all night long."

And the thing is, I believe it will happen. "Easy" and his children and all the others living in our house will go home. I do believe that Tony Blair will keep his promise, and that will make it damn near impossible for those with less courage to wriggle out of their responsibility.

The writer is a BBC News special correspondent