Peace in the Balkans: The Return - Day of wild rumour and joyous hope

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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 a couple almost fell out of the trucks throwing her bars of chocolate.

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 hit the camps the Russians were occupying the Kosovar capital Pristina, and British parasand Gurkhas were flying in to throw them out.

The only concrete thing the refugees could see was the seemingly endless movements 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, Stenkovec 1, A Macedonian shouted at Kosovars behind the fence. "Go. Go home with your Nato friends. Don't come back." Most laughed at him - they were not in a mood to be intimidated.

UN and aid officials fear a few refugees would attempt to go home when Nato goes in, risking serious casualties on roads yet to be de- mined. 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 are 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 is 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.

Last night the border remained closed, by order of the Macedonian guards.