War in the Balkans: Families broken, just for the hell of it

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ALL WEEK we have seen the fair-haired woman and her little girl. They seem to be everywhere. From early morning until dusk they wander the hills around the border at Blace in Macedonia and at night they sleep where they can.

Day after day they stand on the road above the now infamous Lepenec river valley, their eyes raking endlessly down over the tens of thousands who have been waiting for days among the makeshift tents and rubbish for somebody or something to haul them away from this awful place. As people come from the mud gasping and clawing their way up the final 30ft embankment to the waiting buses they peer at each face. Sometimes they try their luck at one of the sprawling tent cities set up by the military where thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees are bussed in before collapsing to lie like corpses in the now hot sun in the sleep of absolute exhaustion. They move from group to group, staring at the faces. Always hoping. But theirs is an impossible task. How do you find three people when an entire ethnic community is pouring by on the road to nowhere?

Rmelihate Rmoku and her daughter Alma, seven, could be considered lucky. They were part of a hugely extended ethnic Albanian family and she had relatives to go to in Macedonia after the family were hounded out of their smart suburban house in Pristina six days ago. The family stayed together for a while as their city was looted and burnt. But when the invading army started piling them into trains at the Pristina sidings last Thursday, they were one of the many victims of Serbian humour. One of their little jokes is to deliberately split families, perhaps thousands of them, just for the hell of it.

Rmelihate's husband, Dzeal, a 43-year-old chartered engineer risked death when an Arkan bully boy ripped his wife and youngest daughter out and shoved them into a train and slammed the door. He fought and was clubbed with a truncheon and told to go to another train. So now Rmelihate is one of the thousands of mothers looking for husbands and children. Dzeal and her other girls, Arber, 15, and Aida, 14, could still be down in the mud, waiting their turn in a process that could take days. Or they could be still on the road south, still on the far side of the border, or even in Pristina.

We first met her in witnessing an act of courage. The Macedonian Foreign Minister, Aleksander Dimitrov, making a rare visit to the mess at Blace, was just climbing into his big black Mercedes when she burst out of the crowd and cornered him, demanding that he find her husband for her. For nearly five minutes the astonished minister couldn't get away from her. And he was forced to listen to her story, hear the details of her missing family - and promise that his officials would attempt to trace them. He was lying, of course.

Yesterday, as the big military transport jets and chartered airlines from a dozen nations began transforming the tiny, sleepy Skopje airport into a mini-Heathrow, and the greatest air evacuation of modern times began, the full extent of this immense tragedy became clear. An entire community and culture, perhaps involving more than a million people, is being smashed before our eyes, perhaps forever, and its people scattered to the four corners of the globe.

Men, women, old folk, babies and children are being pushed into a ruthless human wringer that is now capable of lifting them from the mud hole valley beneath Blace, forcing them on to airliners with or without their permission, and taking them into the sky - to wake up tomorrow morning in places as far apart as the Caribbean, the South Pacific and Sweden.

The final indignity was that they were confronted with male and female Macedonian police officers who didn't want to smell the tired and weary refugees. The officers wore face masks and sprayed the handrails with disinfectant before they boarded the aircraft.

The closing 20th century has repeatedly witnessed the phenomenon of violent national exodus, but surely none has been as swift, ruthless, complete and far flung as this one. Slobodan Milosevic can watch the jets fly out of Skopje on CNN tonight and raise his glass. It has all worked out better than he planned. Now he has an empty country to do with as he wills, and the time to talk until the world becomes weary of it all.

But with the coming of warm weather yesterday the spectre of one great catastrophe receded. After a week that has shamed many aid agencies, the great unblocking of the Lepenec Valley, went up an impressive gear yesterday. The implacable Macedonian government, who played with the lives of thousands to force Western governments to take hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians immediately out of their hair, stopped their time wasting at the border, and allowed the bottleneck to break.

And the military, magnificent as always in chaos, have been allowed to do what they had been pleading to do for more than a week - they brought their massive transport and engineering manpower and equipment into play, with helicopters, trucks, field kitchens and medical inspection centres now up and running in the many tented camps back from the border.

Only a handful of deaths were reported in the valley yesterday, although there were stories of dysentery outbreaks, among both medical staff and refugees. And although it is still difficult to get down into the valley floor, tracks have been laid, and trucks full of water and food can now get to established distribution points.

Hundreds of red state buses run an unceasing shuttle service from Blace to the camps - or directly to the airport at Skopje. At the whim of an official the lost people of Kosovo could end up on a Macedonian mountainside behind wire fences - or in the searing sun of Guam, thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean.

And the ultimate cruelty could be that whole families - like that of Rmelihate Rmoku - could be split between hemispheres.