The road from ethnic cleansing to a kind of freedom is long and perilous for fleeing Kosovar refugees. Photographs by Tom Stoddart in Albania. Words by Enver Muhaxheri, from the first plane-load of refugees to arrive in Britain
"I am 39, married with three children. Until March of this year I lived in Pristina where I ran my own bureau de change. My wife Xhevrije was a primary school teacher. We lived in an eight-roomed three-storey house and had a very normal, very nice life.

"That changed on the 25th of March [the day after the start of the Nato bombing campaign] when the police and paramilitary troops entered the district of Dragodan, which is where my house used to be. They were like wild beasts walking into our house, they just started shooting in the air and into the walls and told us to leave. They were screaming and swearing.

"It was 7pm and we were all sat at the table eating a traditional Kosovar stew of meat and beans. We just left everything there and walked out in our sandals. We went to the house of some relatives in Tophane in the northern part of Pristina. We stayed there for two nights until the police came. They put their guns through the windows and then started shooting. My brother- in-law was shot in the arm.

"They cleansed the areas of Dragodan and Tophane and put us all in the road and made us walk towards the football stadium and we were scared that they were going to take us in there and execute us. When we arrived by the stadium they forced us to walk towards the train station. By now we were a crowd of probably 20,000: men, women and children.

At the station they kept us waiting in the rain for a day and a half. One man I knew joined the crowd and told me his brother had been shot dead by a sniper. Then he just fainted in front of me. They told us to get on a train but it was almost full. I had to pass my children through the windows. People were very scared and children were crying. In a compartment for six, there must have been 18 people, maybe even 25. There was one person on top of another. All I had with me was a small leather bag with some biscuits and a few clothes for the children. I had to leave our other baggage by the roadside during the long walk.

"There were rumours on the train that we were going to Serbia to be put in an ammunitions building as human shields. The journey took three hours. The train stopped often and each time there were troops all around, pointing their guns at us. Finally we arrived at the neutral zone on the border with Macedonia. They shouted that we had five minutes to leave the neutral zone and they told us not to walk outside of the rail tracks because mines had been laid.

"The queue of people walking along the tracks was followed by troops who pointed their guns and shouted, `That's the border, that's where you should go, that's where you belong'. There were thousands of people just stood in the open air. Some Albanians who live in Macedonia were helping us, throwing bread from a tractor. I felt humiliated and angry for not knowing where I was going and what was happening.

"We stayed there in the open for five days. There were no toilet facilities and people started to fall ill with hepatitis. The UNHCR gave us some plastic sheets but they were soon soaking wet. There were horrible scenes, which I cannot really describe.

"Then we started walking towards Macedonia and that's when the real problems started because people became separated from their families. I was trying to carry my three children in my arms. My daughters Floriana and Arlinda are 11 and eight and my son Visar is five.

"They were putting us on to buses. Some were going to Macedonia, some to Albania. We arrived at Brazda in Macedonia, where the camp was split into two - Stenkovac One and Stenkovac Two. The Nato soldiers helped us a lot. They made us a tent and they gave us food. We just thank them for what they did because they were working 24 hours a day to give us food and shelter. But we were sleeping rough and constantly waking up. I would make the children walk around the camp at night to get warm before they went back to sleep because their bodies were getting frozen.

"Our children were in a bad state. Their skin was yellow and we didn't have enough water to wash them. We had to queue for four hours to get a small piece of bread and maybe some paste. My wife has a kidney stone and she was always having to lie down. There was a small German-run hospital and she was taken in and put on a drip. I was very worried. I had just lost my home and if I lost my wife I was about to go crazy.

"The Nato troops contacted some UNHCR doctors and explained about my wife. They said that when the first flight became available we would be taken out. I made a request to go to Germany, Norway, anywhere in the EU. I have to say I have been surprised by the greetings we have received in Britain. The people have contributed a lot of things for us. My wife is feeling better, eating properly and seeing a doctor. The children had a bit of fever when they arrived, maybe from the change in temperature. Now they have started trying to communicate with the local children. I have been here for 12 days and I have now found out that all my relatives are safe. My wife's brother is in France. My cousin is in Belgium.

"I don't think about my future. But at the first opportunity, if things get better, I would like to go home." Interview by Ian Burrell

The Independent Kosovo Appeal has so far raised more than pounds 800,000. If you would like to make a donation, please send cheques or postal orders payable to `Independent Kosovo Appeal' to the Disasters Emergency Committee, PO Box 2710, London W1A 5AD, or call 0990 22 22 33 to donate by credit card.

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