War in the Balkans: Aid Effort - `We are only trying to help'

RED-EYED and exhausted, Private James Smith was sitting on the yellowing grass for a brief smoke-break. Behind him snaked a ragged queue of refugees waiting for food parcels being handed out by his comrades.

For the past couple of hours Private Smith, 23, had been on his feet passing over boxes of army rations containing food for 24 hours, 6,000 calories of it. Before that he delivered boxes to those too tired to queue, lying in hastily erected 10-man tents. Before that - during the night - he had been helping put up those tents.

He had had no more than two hours' sleep in the past two days and it showed. "Things seem to be working a bit better now," said Private Smith, from 2nd Battalion, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. "At first people were apprehensive, very wary of us. Now they realise we are only trying to help."

At the camp at Brazde, the tented city that has grown indays on the edge of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, there are hundreds of British troops and their Nato comrades at the forefront of the humanitarian effort to help Kosovo's refugees.

Private Smith's friend, L/Cpl Robin Ball, looked equally drawn. "I have been involved before with refugees but never anything on this scale," he said. "Nothing can prepare you for having to deal with this.

"It's amazing that these people are still so proud - I was handing out pieces of chicken earlier and they were so careful not to get any on their clothes. I suppose they were wearing all they had."

About 5,000 refugees have arrived at Brazde and the nearby camp at Stankovic in two days, bused in from the border a few miles away after days spent being processed. They are desperate and terrified. Many are seriously unwell.

"Some have walked 50 miles in their socks so you can imagine what state their feet are in," said Captain Matt Humphries, who is running the field hospital. "Many are terribly dehydrated so we have saline drips for them. The more serious cases are taken by ambulance into town."

His medical team can do little about the mental state of the refugees. As Capt Humphries spoke, other medics were trying to help a man lying on the ground nearby, crying hysterically as he clutched a handful of documents tight to his chest.

But everyone had stories of terror - of being forced from their homes, of walking to the border then encountering the heavy-handed Macedonian security forces.

"They treat us like dogs," said Mihrie Pantinor, a grandmother from a village near Pristina, sitting outside her wind-whipped nylon tent. "They are as bad as the Yugoslavs. Why do they do it to us?" Asked about her son and husband, Mrs Pantinor erupted in tears. "I have not seen them for weeks," she managed to say. "I don't know if they are alive or dead."

Muran Prizron, 23, a student from Pristina, had also been forced from his home by the militia. "It was like a dream, what I have seen," he said. "Burning - houses and villages burning, and many, many, many children all crying." The refugees are glad to be safe but know their future is uncertain. "Where would I like to go?" retorted Mr Prizron. "What options do you think I have?