War In The Balkans - In The Camps: `Are our days of suffering going to end?'

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The Independent Online
IT BEGAN in urgent whispers. Within minutes it had turned into an excited murmur that seemed to fill the camp. Milosevic had accepted the peace deal - they may at last be going home to their beloved Kosovo.

"Is it true my son, is it true?" An old woman dressed in black with most of her teeth missing and bright shining eyes tugged at the arm of a young man. He impatiently shook her off. "Let me listen, they are saying it now," he said, as he bent forward into the group huddled over a radio. Around them there were similar clusters, all avidly soaking in the news.

The scene at Stenkovec II outside Skopje was, no doubt, being repeated in camps across Macedonia and Albania. What seemed unbelievable appeared to be happening at last and there was a growing belief that their days of suffering may be coming to an end.

At Stenkovec, after the news broke there was a buzz, then a sort of silence as if people were trying to adjust to what was happening. Then the talking and debates began. Some made a rush along the dusty track to a large tent where France Telecom was offering free three-minute calls. Others begged aid workers, UN officials and journalists to borrow their mobile phones.

Emier Bashi did not want to phone, he just wanted to show a photo of the house he had left behind near Pristina. "I was building a garage there," he said jabbing a finger at the grainy and grubby picture. "And that is the garden. It is a big garden, there is a big tree and we used to have our meals under it."

"Are you sure it's still there?" his friend Hakim asked half-jokingly. "The Chetniks may have destroyed it." But Emier would not be dissuaded from his dream. "No, no, they didn't burn it. I have news," he nodded firmly. Others just wanted to go back, even if there was not much to go back to. "They set fire to my house. We saw it burning when we left. One of the Serb soldiers hit me on the shoulder because I kept turning around," said Fahmi Ramidi, a teacher. "But the land is there. They could not burn the land, could they? We shall build another house. We have five brothers, we shall do it together." There was, for the time being at least, a lot of laughter and chattering among the lines of the tents.

Even the normally taciturn and scowling Macedonian guards, whose job was to keep the refugees behind the wires, seemed relaxed. One almost broke into a smile as he waved in the general direction of the 22,000 penned inside. "They can go home, and we can start living normally again now. No one wants this."

It may, however, be a while before that happens. Although the Macedonian authorities would like nothing better than to tip all 270,000 within its border back into Kosovo the minute peace is declared, Nato has told the UN Aid Agency that it would be at least a month before the roads and the land, with their mines and fallen allied weaponry, can be made safe.

But for some, that is not the only danger. Fahrije Krahiqi and her husband, Zamiz, come from the village of Stanovc in the north of Kosovo. Their fear is going back to a zone controlled by the Russians. Fahrije said: "Frankly, that is almost as bad as being under Milosevic. We know that the Russians and the Serbians are brothers. We have heard that there are Russians serving in the Serbian army. How can we trust them?"

A UN official said: "It could get like Europe after the Second World War with refugees struggling to get into the Western sector rather than the Soviet one. The details of this peace plan will have to be very carefully worked out. We have a lot of very nervous people here."

For some in the camp there was a bitter edge to the rejoicing. They had lost members of their family as they came out of Kosovo, and they are still missing. The search for them goes on.

Vitina Bekoli has been trying to find out what happened to her 18-year- old brother, who got separated when the family were ordered to leave their home near Obelic. She said: "My mother has hardly spoken since this happened. She just sits there. She is worrying herself to death. Of course we are glad that there will perhaps be peace, but am I going to get my brother back? And he's not the only one, there are thousands like him. Will Nato help us find these missing ones or are they going to be forgotten just because Milosevic had agreed to this deal?"

Arife Hamah has not seen his wife and family since he fled from Pristina. The 23-year-old was warned that the Serbs were rounding up young men. He said: "I shall find them, I know they haven't died."

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