At last, relief starts in valley of death

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The Independent Online
IN THIS vast, filthy arena created by madness and fear, it was a very small death, witnessed by only those who happened to be passing.

Shortly after dawn, the old woman, as tiny and as light as a child, had been passed through the sea of people, mud and garbage, hand to hand like a parcel of dirty clothing. She was over 90 years old and although she was dying of hypothermia and dehydration, she had certainly been murdered. Milosevic's thugs might as well have put a gun to her head instead of rousting her from her bed in Pristina, packing her on a train and making her sleep in a sodden field for three nights.

The young Greek doctor did her best. She tried to find blood pressure and she tried to find a pulse on her neck. But the end came within 30 minutes of the old woman's arrival at the pathetic little Red Cross casualty station. The doctor stood up, shook her head and walked away. Next case. About 50 people lay on the grass, some in coma, some shivering uncontrollably, some wailing in shock.

The old woman was not the first to die yesterday in the nightmarish valley of the Lepenec river, beneath the village of Brace on the Kosovo-Macedonian border. Nobody knows how many died in the night. One aid worker reported ten infants and two adults, others put the figure lower. But in this ghastly mess, which nobody seems able to unblock, there will be many more deaths in the days and weeks ahead. One potential catastrophe is already unleashed - and another, even bigger, is descending from the hills in the north.

The position is this. On the Macedonian side of the border there are perhaps 50,000 to 60,000 people essentially trapped by Macedonian troops who are anything but friendly. It is impossible to calculate the exact numbers, except to say that from a high hill the densely packed crowd stretches for nearly two miles.

Yesterday, a blessed warming sun roused the massive military and aid-agency machinery from its eight-day torpor and some organised aid was finally produced. But better than that, somebody appeared to have a plan to release a human bottleneck that was only hours from becoming a disease-ridden graveyard.

A fleet of buses, perhaps a hundred in number, began to appear on the hillside and, yard by yard, the dense crowd started to move out of the morass.

Within 24 hours, thousands of troops, engineers and catering staff from the combined Nato force of 12,000 had set up half a dozen tented cities in the hills around the border; the great unblocking operation was finally under way.

A senior British army officer, in charge of the British camp at Bojane, estimated it would take many days to clear the valley - but he said that if the weather stayed fine there was a chance of avoiding serious epidemics and loss of life. Meanwhile, he was doing what the paralysed lead organisation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, had been dithering over for eight days. His men were cooking thousands of hot meals, producing 200,000 gallons of unpolluted water, erecting thousands of tents and getting the show on the road.

But even this cheerful man knew that a bigger horror was just over the hill. He knew that farther up the same valley - back where the Serbs are still prodding and pushing and driving the dispossessed - another exodus is en route from Pristina, blocking the road for 10 miles. And from a high hill it is clear that he is right. A column of the damned is stretching and twisting up through the valley, moving slowly, hoping for rest and food.

But they won't get it. Macedonia is a nation in the grip of parallel nightmares - the threat of a Serbian invasion and the fear of internal instability - and it has now closed its border and demanded promises that the rest of the world will take its share of ethnic Albanians. So now, another, and perhaps greater tide of misery will spill into a huge no man's land in which nobody will be

able to feed and shelter them.

The sights and sounds of this hellish place are almost beyond description. The miasma of disease, through human waste and polluted water, hangs heavy in the air. Yesterday's sudden burst of heat brought out swarms of flies and the blankets that cover the thousands of babies and infants were already crawling with lice.

It seems that every third young woman has a child in her arms. It seems that one face in ten belongs to a person of impossible old age. How they have survived this far is beyond belief. Many lie motionless, tiny wizened faces encased in shawls; others wander around looking dazed. The magnificent old men who once fought the Nazis and would never weep, crouch down on their haunches in the style of coal miners and workmen the world over, waiting for whatever calamity comes next. But now and again you see their faces collapse, and they too begin to weep.

There is a strange perception that these now dirty and ragged Kosovo Albanians are all poor, peasant people. It is not so. They are just like us; all manner of people. I saw several women in expensive tailored suits, carrying leather suitcases. There were businessmen and professional types with glittering watches on their wrists - and the faces of ghosts.

One family had owned an eight-roomed villa in Pristina, two businesses, and a top-of-the-range Mercedes. The Mercedes was now the property of a paramilitary commander believed to be linked to the Serbian warlord known as Arkan. It was one of thousands you can see parked just over the border, a showroom for freebies for the looters who call themselves the army.

The rich family's business premises are now a gutted ruin, although they believe their house has been commandeered as a Serb officer's headquarters. Status, money and property have been consigned to a past life; the businessman and his stylish wife are now just part of the multitude of new invisibles, heading for months in tented camps, perhaps never to go back

I met a young Albanian television actor, Artan Gica, who was on the verge of a film career. "It all ended with the door being smashed in," he said. "There stood the Arkans, with their faces masked and carrying the long machete knives they like so much. That was the end of my life and my career. I have nothing now."

I asked him about the Nato bombing campaign, but he never saw or heard any before he was forced to flee on Thursday. "There were no planes, no bombs," he said. "The Serbs cleared out every street in Pristina, one by one, over three days. They stole everything we had. We just ran for our lives."

I went up once again for a final look at this terrible valley. By late afternoon, the buses were running, one every few minutes, and those people at the bottleneck head of the mass of refugees gasped and struggled up through the mud. They seemed to relax a little. A few even smiled.

But there was one more insult to bear. An hour later, on a bleak hillside beneath snow-capped mountains at a place called Reduca, they had a taste of what comes next. They were grateful for the tents and the hot food, but they are now within a sealed compound of wire fences, surrounded once again by men with guns. The Macedonians may not want to kill them, but they are determined they will not be allowed to wander at will.

One young woman, clinging to the fence with her child, had no relatives in Macedonia. That meant just one thing. She was facing weeks, perhaps months, inside what is a prison camp in everything but name. Such places often become permanent.

"I don't like this place," she said. "But I am grateful to be alive. And tonight I will have a place to sleep and food. Perhaps that is enough."

James Dalrymple