War In The Balkans: At 103, he's seen wars and famine but nothing like this

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HE SAT upright in the darkness at the rear of the tent, so quiet and still that we thought he was asleep. Or even that death had finally come to claim him.

But when his elderly son leaned over and kissed his forehead, his large, hooded eyes flicked open instantly and he smiled with genuine pleasure to see strange men with cameras and notebooks who wanted to hear his small story among thousands of other stories. He said he was honoured that we had chosen to interview him.

Sadrija Guri comes from a race of people who are known to live long lives. But even among the Kosovo Albanians of the Drenica region, he is known as the oldest of the old. He was, he told us with quiet pride, 103 years of age.

And he added that he has no intention of dying anywhere else but in Glogovac, the village that gave him birth and from which he has never travelled more than 30 miles in his lifetime. Until now.

In the big tent there were nods of agreement with this. Sitting all around him in the gloomy dampness were a small rump of his huge extended family, about 22 people covering five generations, including several babies.

And when old Sadrija makes a point of principle, everybody tends to agree. He may be nearing the end of his life, but he is still head of the family.

Will he ever see his homeland again? He may have to live many more months, perhaps even years, to do so. And even if he does return he knows that his large house at the heart of the pretty village is now a burnt-out ruin. Just eight days ago he saw the men he calls "the barbarians" burning the house he built with his own hands, where all his many sons and daughters were born, where they raised families of their own, and where his wife has long lay buried.

Sadrija is one of a huge number, perhaps running into thousands, of the very old, those of 90 years or more, who miraculously continue to survive after weeks of trekking across mountains and ending up in the growing hell-hole that is the Cegrane refugee camp in northern Macedonia. Everybody who has witnessed the Kosovo refugee phenomenon has been astonished at the toughness and determination of these very old people.

By every physical criterion most of them should have died on the long, bitter road south from their ravaged land. The Cegrane camp, with mile upon mile of tents stretched out on a bare mountainside 30 miles from Skopje, did not exist nine days ago. It was built from scratch by German army engineers to cope with up to 5,000 people. Today over 36,000 are living there and that number is growing by up to 5,000 a day.

Already there are plans to extend it to hold up to 100,000. It lies so high up on the mountain that throughout the day it stays covered in mist and sometimes freezing fog.

Yesterday it was just a notch above freezing and perhaps that was a good thing, because the stench from the tin-walled latrines would be unbearable in any sort of heat.

So how did a man of 103 end up in this terrible place? And how could he possibly survive a journey of nearly 100 miles, zigzagging across mountains and rivers, living rough in forests for many days and nights, before being herded on to a train packed with thousands of his countrymen and finally being dumped in a border field? He did it because he was carried every step of the way by his sons and daughters and his middle-aged grandchildren, even though they were exhausted and starving.

His eldest son, Thani, was beaten unconscious by militia thugs the night they broke down the door of the family home. The house was looted and burnt to the ground. One of the policemen paused only to spit on the old man.

But Sadrija has survived two world wars, local political upheavals and at least one famine. He has seen violence many times, and when he left he never looked back once at his burning home. He simply climbed on to the back of Thani and was carried down the road and into the forest.

"He is a remarkable man, my father" said Thani. "He cannot see or hear too well and he cannot walk. But his mind and his heart are still strong ... he never complained once ... In the nights he played with the babies and kept them quiet so we could get some sleep. But sometimes, when he did not see me watching, I saw him break down and weep."

Then, in the morning, he had recovered and the men took their turns to carry him.

"We have been offered the chance to fly to Germany, where we have family, but he will not go," Thani said. "He says he will wait here ... until the barbarians are driven away. Then he will go home to die. So we cannot leave him. If he stays, we all stay."

Everywhere in the camp you find the very old, hobbling on sticks, wrapped like cocoons in layers of blankets, or just crouching in silence. Shaha Gjemajli, bent almost double with arthritis, saw a tank squash her house like matchwood in the village of Tankosici, and then walked five miles over a mountain before being given a lift on a tractor. Three days ago, she was 94 years old.

Through an interpreter I asked for her memories of the trek, and she laughed: "I was put on a train at Pristina. I have never been on a train. Then I came to Macedonia. And I had never been to Macedonia." Then she suddenly wept, grasping my arm and asking if they would let her go home soon. "My house is gone. But there are many photographs of my family at my sister's house. I would like to go back and get them. Can they get my pictures for me? I would be all right if I had my pictures with me." With this she collapsed and a large middle-aged man picked her up carried her away, just as he and others had carried her for many days.

At the end of a queue stretching nearly half a mile for the daily food ration, I talked to Hamdiya Ahmeti, 87, also from Tankosici. His house, too, was looted and burnt in the night and he was driven into the forest with hundreds of others. The snow was still feet deep. I noticed he was wearing only carpet slippers over his bare feet. "I didn't have time to find my boots" he said. "But my feet don't feel the cold too much. Maybe I am too old for my feet to remember the cold. But they are very dirty and I cannot wash them. That is very unsociable." Those feet had carried him nearly 50 miles. There was nobody in his family capable of carrying him. Feeling stupid, I asked him about his plans. He just gave a huge, expressive shrug. "I will do what they tell me to do. I will wait here. I have nowhere else to go."

In another tent I spoke to Isem Krasnici, 85, who spent 14 days sleeping on the forest floor 6,000ft up on a mountain with 14 of his family after being burnt out of his cottage in Gadimilje, near Pristina.

He had been clubbed to the ground and forced to watch Serbian invaders taking his two cows, three sheep and some chickens, and slaughtering them on his kitchen floor before cooking them.

I asked him how survived the two weeks in the wilderness. He shrugged. "You die when God says you die. Today I'm alive. Tomorrow, who knows? I have four of my sons with me. They are good boys and they will look after me as I once looked after them."

Isem was another one who could still make jokes. "I hope those who killed my old cow will die of the bellyache" he cackled. "That old beast was always bad news, and she had the tuberculosis I think. Maybe those bastards will die and I will live."

My last image of Isem, now burnt into my brain, is of him cradling his three-year-old great granddaughter Nori in his arms while her mother slept beside them.

The child now cannot speak and refuses to stand up. German doctors at the camp can do nothing for her. She is sinking into what they call extreme trauma. She saw her father being beaten senseless in her bedroom as he tried to protect her.

And she saw her two older brothers being dragged away into the night. The doctors fear there are thousands of such damaged children among the Kosovan refugees, and without sophisticated psychiatric help, many of them will sink into severe mental illness that may last a lifetime.

In this unfolding catastrophe it seems that the very old can cope with everything. But the very young may have been damaged beyond repair.