War in the Balkans: Exodus - Refugees shun Nato's new camps

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THE CAMPS built for Albanian refugees at Korca are the best seen so far. Four thousand Kosovars were expected to arrive within 10 days of opening.

But fewer than 500 have taken up the offer. Nearly all the refugees prefer to stay in squalid and unsanitary tents, bursting at the seams and with outbreaks of diseases - because the new camps are in Albania and the Kosovars do not want to leave Macedonia.

This has become one of the most pressing problems of the Kosovo crisis for the UN, Nato and international agencies. With a population of 2.2 million, a stagnant economy and 270,000 refugees, Macedonia has repeatedly protested that it cannot keep on taking in more Albanians.

One reason the refugees prefer Macedonia is because the Albanian government has refused to allow them to go on to the West. This policy is about to change. Those who can prove members of their families have been sent abroad in the diaspora will have the opportunity to be reunited.

Whether this limited offer will have any significant effect on the logjam remains to be seen. Ellie Wiesel, President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans, visited Macedonia yesterday, and this was going to be one of his main topics of discussion with the government, aid agencies and community leaders among the refugees.

The new camps being built around Korca, in southern Albania, are far from the Kosovo border and many refugees feel this will hinder their quick return home if and when the country is liberated from Serbian rule. Gerard Fayoux, head of the UN High Commission for Refugees in the area, said: "We have to accept the reluctance of the refugees to leave Macedonia to come to Albania. But we cannot force them to come here. We had to build these camps to offer an alternative because the camps in Macedonia are now full and the situation is very serious."

If the Kosovars in Macedonia continue to refuse to cross the borders, the new camps may re-house refugees in Kukes, in northern Albania. Nato wants camps there closed because they are overcrowded and within range of Serbian artillery.

The camps around Korca are being built by British Army engineers and pioneers headed by Brigadier Tim Cross, commander of the new 101 Logistic Brigade. They will withstand the winter, an admission that a long military and diplomatic campaign lies ahead.

Humanitarian experts have praised the vision and care shown in their construction. The British soldiers and aid agencies have had more time to work than the agencies that dealt with the initial exodus from Kosovo. These camps are intended to bring a little dignity and privacy to the lives of the dispossessed.

At Erseke, fresh water comes down the mountains and the sheltered accommodation is divided into family units. Tents are not in regimented rows, but in clusters around squares to give more of a feel of village life. There is no central kitchen to cause the long, grim queues waiting to be fed. Families will prepare their own food.

Ian Loring, a church aid worker, helped to design the project. "Hopefully, the family units will give them privacy," he said.