War in Europe: 40,000 hide from killers in the hills

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The Independent Online
Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians, mostly women, children and old men, are roaming the hills and mountains of southern Kosovo, facing starvation if they cannot reach the Albanian or Macedonian borders soon, exhausted refugees said here yesterday.

Solving a mystery that had worried aid workers and governments, about 100 Kosovar Albanians walked across the Macedonian border here yesterday morning, the first large group to arrive in the area in 10 days. They said they were among up to 40,000 refugees who had been wandering the hills for six weeks, with little or nothing to eat, after being driven from their homes.

Not only were the police and military continuing their "ethnic cleansing" policy, they said, but Serbian villagers were assisting the policy by trying to starve out the Albanians. "For the first few weeks, we managed at least to get bread, but for days we have not even had that," one old woman said as she staggered the few hundred yards from the General Jankovic railway station inside the Kosovo border to the Macedonian checkpoint at Blace. "There are still Serbian food shops open in southern villages but they turned us away and refused to sell us flour, sugar or rice. They said `If you want to eat, go to Albania or to your Nato friends'."

The refugees explained that they had heard after 5 May that the Macedonian border was closed. They also feared passing Serb police, military and paramilitary roadblocks where many men had previously been separated from their families and disappeared. After word spread yesterday that refugees could get into Macedonia without identity documents - the Serbs took their documents, money and valuables - thousands more were likely to come down from the hills and cross over in coming days, they said.

Ron Redmond, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said one refugee woman had told him she saw her husband and nephew shot before she boarded a train yesterday in the Kosovan town of Urosevac, about 20 miles north of here. The Serbs had also insisted every refugee pay for their train ticket, he added. Those who had previously been robbed were unable to board.

Like the rest of the group, the old woman was too terrified to give her name. And, like the rest, she was to find that her walk across the border was by no means a walk to immediate freedom or even a warm welcome.

Yesterday's refugees were not even allowed to rest at the empty refugee camp here, to get water or shade from a blistering sun and temperatures in the high 80s. They were herded straight onto buses for a 90-minute drive to the bigger camp at Cegrane, where they filed behind barbed wire into tents to await processing and transfer to the nations offering to take them.

"If we take 30,000 Albanians in now, they'll soon be 300,000," said a plainclothes police inspector at the Blace crossing, reflecting the Macedonian majority's hatred of ethnic Albanians. "They're not even allowed into a mosque to pray unless they have at least five children," he added, repeating a common ethnic slur here. "They are lawless and they make their money from running drugs or guns."

Many Macedonians, of either opinion, predict civil war here - similar to those in Croatia and Bosnia - regardless of the outcome of Nato's conflict with Slobodan Milosevic.