War in the Balkans: Airlift rescues thousands from the hell of tent cities

EVEN IN a world where human misery has become a multi-billion dollar industry, the scope of what is happening in northern Macedonia is breathtaking.

Day after day from the skies over the modest little airport at Skopje you can hear the screaming of big jet engines as aircraft from over 20 countries swoop down over the mountains to collect the massed thousands of the sick, the fearful and the terrorised.

The biggest mass airlift in modern history - a kind of airbridge out of hell - has now been established. Every day upwards of 2,000 people areplucked from the mushrooming tent cities before the ferocious summer heat of the central Balkans turns them into disease-ridden death traps. And in the weeks ahead, those numbers will increase.

Airbuses, 747s, Galaxies and Russian Rusland transporters thunder down to take the cargoes of suffering humanity from a never-ending convoy of buses bringing them from the camps spread out in a 50-mile radius around the border. Is it really possible to scoop up around 200,000 people from such a mess and drop them down in safety in twenty odd countries as far apart as Australia and Finland, or Turkey and Canada?

Six weeks ago the odds against such a logistical conjuring trick would have been huge. In the great mud pit of the Lepenec Valley at Blace, on the Kosovo-Macedonia border, nearly 100,000 people had been trapped for days before being bussed to a series of seven huge tented camps in the mountains and valleys. There, in conditions that were fast becoming nightmarish, they looked as if they would stay, perhaps for months, until the start of the almost arctic winter.

At first many of them did indeed want to remain. Every instinct told them to stay near home, and hope for a quick solution to the war. But within days all that changed. Now they are desperate to go, somewhere, anywhere. You can see it in their faces as they queue for hours at the camps, waiting to make their requests for registration to the host countries.

Many of them, especially the children, will perhaps never go home. But the desire to escape is understandable. The camps grow more unbearable by the day.

Yesterday we watched them line up to catch their buses taking them down the road to the airport. We saw wonderment in the eyes of the children as they turned a corner and saw the massive, gleaming shape of a Canadian Royal Airline Airbus.

We saw two-year-old Isem Badu drop his banana on the tarmac in utter astonishment. He had been burned out of his home near Pristina three weeks ago. His two uncles had been abducted and his mother beaten before his eyes. He had eaten leaves and berries and slept on the forest floor for days. Then he had shivered for 15 days in the tents among 30 of his extended family.

In just a few hours the little boy will open his eyes in a place called Greenwood, Nova Scotia. He will be welcomed into a sponsor family, he will go to school. His family will be free to work and live in Canada as long as they like. And he will always have the choice of going home. His story will be repeated all over the world, from the beaches of Sydney to the cities of northern England.

"We can do this job," said Simona Opitz, of the International Organisation of Migration, whose staff are co-ordinating the airlift.

"Whether it is 100,000 or 200,000 we will not let these people down. The planes are coming and the system is in place at the camp. Now we just have to grind away and take these people to safety." It is not a perfect system. It is not first come, first served. And there has been despair as large families are split up through the strict criteria used by officials.

First to go are the sick and the old, then the children, nursing mothers, unaccompanied women and so on. Each night a list is posted giving the names of those who have been selected for the next day's flights.

There are endless tragedies. One happened yesterday as a flight prepared to leave for Prestwick and a new home in Britain. On board the bus were Golopeni Sahib and his two children. One of them has leukaemia and she has become his passport to safety, but he had to leave behind his four sisters, his mother and 20 other members his family. Through the bus window the children wept, their aunts and uncles wept, everybody wept.

"My family stayed together throughout the terror," said Mr Sahib. "And Albanians always try to stay together as a family but I must leave them. My child will die if I don't. Why your country? I don't really mind where I go to but I saw the tent marked for Britain and it had the smallest queue."

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