Peace In The Balkans: Day of wild rumour and joyous hope in camps

The Return
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The Independent Online
THE LITTLE girl on the roadside was almost lost amid the swirling dust thrown up by the column of army trucks but the soldiers could just glimpse the home-made Nato flag she was waving, her parents clapping on either side. The soldiers laughed and two, throwing her bars of chocolate, almost fell out of the trucks.

For the exuberant refugees in Macedonian refugee camps this was a day of hope and glory. The return to their beloved Kosovo was now so close they could almost taste it. And the armoured might of Nato roaring off was a vivid sign of how their Serbian oppressors have been vanquished.

The frenetic day began with the cry in the capital of Skopje that the Russians were coming. By the time the rumour spread to the camps, the Russians were said to be occupying the Kosovo capital, Pristina, and British Paras and Gurkhas were flying in to throw them out.

The only concrete thing the refugees could see was the seemingly endless movement of Nato troops. The Macedonian guards with their natural sympathy with their now- humiliated Serbian kith and kin were not in a celebratory mood. At one of the camps, Stankovic 1, a Macedonian shouted at Kosovars behind the fence. "Go home with your Nato friends. Don't come back." Most laughed, they were not in a mood to be intimidated.

United Nations and aid officials fear a few refugees will attempt to go home when Nato moves in, risking serious casualties on roads yet to be cleared of mines. On Thursday two Macedonian journalists who crossed the border were killed when their car hit a mine.

Nato is struggling to deal with the hundreds of journalists itching to get into Kosovo. A high-powered team of media officials from London is trying to reduce the chaos, amid confusion and fraying tempers at the Continental Hotel in Skopje as attempts to issue Kosovo press passes appeared to degenerate into farce.

The entry of Nato forces was expected to start in the early hours, with British Paras and Gurkhas securing strategic points by helicopter. One of the first priorities is to find and help 500,000 homeless in Kosovo who have been foraging for food and water in the mountains. There are reports of semi-starvation and disease.

The border remained closed last night, but as the Nato troops assembled the atmosphere became almost carnival-like - a strange mixture of military convoys and euphoric Kosovo refugees.

Tanks, armoured cars and troop carriers were being stopped by the exiles, who wanted to shake the hands of the soldiers and thank them for their deliverance. Some jumped on the trucks, and after a while, had to be gently removed by the soldiers, who were all smiling despite the tensions of what lay ahead.

One sergeant in a logistical unit said: "I keep on hearing that this is a just war, I think I now know what that means. We are fighting on the right side, just look at these kids, we are going to take them home, we are going to make sure no one harms them again."

Behind the joy, however, lay another day of confusion and disarray in Nato ranks.

After the reports earlier in the day that the Russians were going to move into Kosovo, General Wesley Clark, Nato's Supreme Commander, had ordered units to scramble in a bid to beat any Russian advance. The British contingents in Macedonia "were up for it". Paratroopers and Gurkhas were almost ready to take off in helicopters when the news came through that the Russians had halted before reaching the Kosovo border, and the alliance scaled down its preparations.