War in the Balkans: Dazed, weary waifs of war fly in

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SLOWLY, NERVOUSLY, four-year-old Alban Maksuti led a procession of tired and traumatised refugees down the staircase from the chartered Bulgarian jet.

These were the 161 passengers on a Tupolev 154 that touched down in Yorkshire sunshine yesterday afternoon, Britain's first Kosovo evacuees, refugees from a crisis that has displaced nearly 700,000 people. Many arrived with nothing more than the clothes they stood up in.

Hand-in-hand with an airport worker, the four-year-old stepped on to the runway at Leeds/Bradford airport and was led towards a fleet of waiting buses. Behind him old women in headscarves, mothers with babies in arms, just a handful of men, and finally a young boy in a wheelchair, emerged from the aircraft.

They had been selected from two camps of 50,000 people because they were among the most vulnerable. Mainly they were the sick, the very old and the very young, including 15 children under the age of two.

Their first view of Britain was the sight of rows of television cameramen and photographers. Assorted councillors, interpreters, immigration officials, paramedics and police officers swelled the throng, but for the baggage- handlers it was a quiet afternoon. All they had to do was lift a few plastic bags and holdalls on to trailers.

Julia Purcell, of the Refugee Council, accompanied the evacuees on their journey. "Everybody has left somebody behind, either in Kosovo or in a place unknown," she said. "These people are in a very bad state. I think the best thing that we can do for them is give them time and space."

Hope Hanlin, of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said many of the women had been forced to make a heart-rending decision to leave their partners. As mothers, she said, they wanted to take their children away from the squalor of the camps.

"But on the other hand, you cannot bring yourself to appear to be abandoning your menfolk. You are just hoping against hope that among the 7,000 people massed on the border might be your brother, father or son."