The familiar diatribe of war zones, from Rwanda to Belfast

The Macedonian taxi driver pointed at some Albanians: `They have 10, 15 children so that they can outnumber us'
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I WAS coming out of the Continental Hotel when the sound of the explosion rolled over the mountain. "Boom boom Nato," shouted the taxi driver. The tremor had distracted him from the important question of what fare I should pay. With hundreds of journalists in town, the predatory instincts of Skopje's taxi-men are rampant. All journeys involve a protracted haggle, but my driver had been unnerved by what he imagined were the sounds of war across the border and he wanted to talk politics. "Clinton bloody crazy. Milosevic bloody crazy. Everybody crazy," he said. I had to agree. After three days in Macedonia I feel I have entered a narrative of the most profound strangeness. It is three hours from England as the crow flies and, as I write, the same spring sunshine is bathing London and Skopje. But in 15 years of reporting from war zones I have never felt the same degree of strangeness, the feeling of a world turned upside down.

You start out at the Swissair desk at Heathrow airport, and stand in line behind the people heading for skiing holidays in the Alps. There are bright clothes and there is a lot of laughter. There are many businessmen in the queue. Serious men in fine suits travelling to Geneva and Zurich. One of them is talking on a mobile phone and stops his conversation abruptly as my flak jacket and helmet roll topple from the trolley and clank on to the floor. But apart from this brief upset, it is a normal morning in Europe.

In Zurich the sun is shining and the Swiss countryside is neat and pretty and safe. And then, more quickly than you can imagine, you are coming in to land at Skopje amid the rows of Nato transport planes. Just outside the window a US marines helicopter, door gunner scanning the ground, is taking off in the direction of the city.

Officially this is a peaceful country that wants a closer relationship with the West, but from the very first conversations it is obvious that the Macedonians would like all of us - journalists, Nato soldiers, aid workers - to go home. My first driver said he was only taking the fare because he needed the money badly. "You come here and tell lies, nothing but lies. That is what you people are paid to do. You want to make us look like savages," he said. And then he began to press me for my opinion. What did I think of Nato bombing Yugoslavia? And those Albanians, what did I think of them? I dissembled. I fudged. "Well of course, I have just arrived in the country. It's so hard to make an instant impression," I replied. The driver was having none of it. "You watch TV, you read the newspapers. Of course you have an opinion," he barked.

I told him that I came from a small country myself and always resented having strangers telling me what was wrong with the place. I could understand his anger at the media and Western politicians. These banal platitudes seemed to satisfy him and he got around to telling me his opinions. We were passing through an Albanian section of town, and the driver did not like the mosques and minarets and the way the women wore scarves and the way the men always seemed to be plotting something under their breath. He had driven a wealthy Albanian family to the Albanian border the other day and they hadn't spoken a word to him all the way. "They thought they were better than me. The truth, which you foreigners won't tell, is that they want to take this place over. Have you seen how big the families are?" He pointed at a group of children playing soccer in a park. "They have 10, 15 children so that they can outnumber us. And now that the refugees have come across, they think they will have a Greater Albania soon."

By the time we reached the Aleksander Palace hotel, the driver had worked himself into a frenzy of disgust for these Albanians who wanted to drive him out of his own country. It was a familiar diatribe. I had heard it in one form or another in Belfast, Rwanda, South Africa and a few other hotbeds of ethnic conflict. The fear that somebody will take what we have, that somebody will want to change us into something we are not, the fear that they will swamp us and that we will cease to be ourselves. It is the psychology of the threatened and it eats away at fine notions of tolerance and inclusivity. I don't suggest that all Macedonians feel this way about the Albanians, but most of those I've spoken to feel that they are under threat and that Nato's attacks on Slobodan Milosevic are simply pushing them one step closer to a bitter ethnic battle.

And so when you ask yourself how on earth the Macedonian government could have treated the Albanian refugees with such obvious contempt - confining them at the border, forcing them on to buses and planes to get them out of the country - consider the fear and the barely suppressed anger of the majority population here. They have thus far escaped being dragged into the Yugoslavian wars of succession. It has taken political guile of which few Western politicians would be capable to deal with what correspondents like to call a "fragile ethnic balance". In other words, any increase in the resident Albanian population - at present some 15 per cent of the national total - and you are sliding towards disaster.

It is not hard to understand why the Macedonians would want rid of the refugees as quickly as possible. But the forced expulsions have left a deep reservoir of bitterness. The Kosovar Albanians feel that they have been treated like animals. As Mimoza Butugi, a 21-year-old law student from Pristina, told me: "They beat us and forced us on to buses. They wouldn't tell us where we were going. I feel as if I am lost in space. I have run out of words for the way I feel. Yes, animals, that is how they made us feel."

I met her, crammed into a room with 20 other people, in a decrepit Albanian army base in the border town of Pogradec. They had just spent 11 hours on buses, winding over mountain roads as the Macedonians pushed them yet further away from Kosovo. It was an extraordinary sight, central to that narrative of strangeness I spoke about earlier. Here they were: lawyers, doctors, factory workers, farmers, even a music teacher... a whole community uprooted and pushed from one country to another country to another country.

The refugees could not care less about a Greater Albania. They simply want to go home. I asked Mimoza if she blamed Nato for her plight. Hadn't the air strikes sparked the ethnic cleansing which drove her and thousands of others from their homes? She did not agree. "When the air strikes came we ran to the cellar and cheered. You know, we celebrated. And every time we hear on the news that there is an air strike, we cheer again even though we are driven away from our homes. Who was it who drove us from our homes? It was not Nato, not Nato. It was the Serbs who did it."

We have heard a lot about unclear war aims and bad planning in the past few weeks. I don't know enough about military affairs to talk authoritatively on the question of planning and intelligence. But as for war aims, I am willing to speculate. It may have started out as a war to impose a peace agreement on Milosevic. But it has become something quite different now. It has become a battle for Mimoza and the hundreds of thousands of others who have been driven from their homes at gunpoint and made dependent on the uncertain mercy of strangers; and it is a battle too for the memory of those who were cleansed from Zvornik and Srebrenica and a hundred other towns in the long calvary of the former Yugoslavia. It is about saying "never again" and meaning it.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent