War in the Balkans: Like an oil painting of hell - and still the dispossessed flood in

Click to follow
THROUGH THE river mist at dawn it looked like an oil painting of hell, with the added dimensions of smell and sound.

The colours came from the clothing of the densely packed human flotsam that filled a wide valley as far as the eye could see. The rising, acrid smell was the one you get from an open drain. And the dominant sounds, faint but piercing in the almost eerie silence, were the cries of thousands of infants urgently needing warmth and food.

As the rising sun of Good Friday started to reveal this awesome panorama, the image of Golgotha, the hill at Calvary, came easily to mind.

It was impossible to tell how many people had been driven into the once pretty valley of River Lepenec, which slices across the border between Kosovo and Macedonia. It was certainly more than Wembley Stadium could hold. One aid worker, used to this kind of sight, said it was the biggest gathering he had seen in the Kosovan tragedy, perhaps 100,000 strong.

We learnt yesterday that up to a quarter of a million people have fled Kosovo since the bombing started on 24 March. But numbers have become meaningless in this savage land. These helpless people had spent many terrifying days running for their lives from a demented killing machine. But the far side of this particular border will mean neither a new beginning nor a safe ending. They have escaped from the killers into a land that fears and detests them, and whose own terrified population could turn on them with new violence.

The Albanians of Kosovo are a tough and resourceful people, an ancient race who know how to survive. But Slobodan Milosevic's men had managed in a week to flush out the entire Albanian population of the province's capital, Pristina. Here, before our eyes in one small place, was almost a quarter of that population, systematically stripped of everything - nationality, citizenship, homes, possessions, money valuables, and every scrap of paper that gave them human status. Now, in the next few days, they will meet other kinds of enemies, disease, hunger and the open loathing of their host country.

They had arrived over a 20-hour period, travelling first by train - 2,500 people brutally crushed into carriages designed for 500 - followed by a two-mile trek across the border.

As their numbers swelled, the stench in the valley floor became ever stronger. It was worst by the river's edge and it was here that the mothers were bringing their babies. By now, many were beyond caring about the dangers of disease - the same brackish water that was being used to clean the children was being boiled over camp-fires to let them drink.

Latrines had been created simply by hanging blankets over ropes and digging pits, but many, especially the young boys, used the river itself, despite the rage of their parents.

Hundreds of Macedonian troops, armed with machine- pistols, formed a perimeter that stretched for miles. They allowed only a small groups through at time, to be "processed", given a white piece of official paper, and then loaded on to fleets of buses. At the rate they were going, it would take a month to clear the valley.

What was once a lush valley and a sweet river had now become something between an open cesspit and a gigantic landfill site. The grass had been turned into a muddy bog, littered with tons of discarded plastic water bottles and food containers and human waste; the river was heavily stained and full of floating garbage.

The much-vaunted multi-million dollar aid rescue package, announced by President Bill Clinton on Thursday, was - as these things always are - in transit. There were only a few aid workers on site, and the medical staff were so overwhelmed that they simply waved people away unless they were on the point of death. Two old people were known to have died on the journey. Others will certainly die in the days ahead.

Total exhaustion had brought a kind of passivity. But there were outbursts of rage from mothers,carrying babies in their arms, who sneaked past the guards and made it up to the road. One of them, who wanted hot milk, was finally pushed aside by an exasperated Red Cross youth. Occasionally aid workers would toss cartons of fruit juice and bottles of water high into the air, making dozens jump to catch them. It was degrading, but the only way to get them to the crowd.

For a few hours, the journalists and television crews tried to interview individuals. But in the end we all gave up. And there came a point where it was difficult to look these people in the eye. Because everywhere the look was the same - a deadness in the eyes, a weariness that stretches to the soul and makes the face a frozen mask.

Every now and then, an old man or an old woman would begin to wail. They had survived the Nazi terror, persecution and famine - and for what? To approach the end of their lives in a muddy field without home or hope.

"They are a despised people in practically every part of the Balkans," said Paula Ghedini, a young Japanese-American worker with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as we stood on the hillside, stunned by what we were witnessing.

"They call them thieves and drug dealers and say they are dirty and breed like rats. But I have found them brave and determined. They care for each other, even if they are not part of an extended clan. Few national cultures are more kind to supportive of each other.

"Somehow they will have somewhere to go. They will not beg for help. They will have a destination, probably in western Macedonia where ethnic Albanians have settled. And even the ones who do not have relatives will be taken in and given a roof over their heads. I think, perhaps, they will never return to Kosovo, no matter what security is prepared for them. They are too frightened and they now have no homes. What they will do is merge into a new land and start again."

That, however, may only be the start of a new ordeal.

A taxi driver who brought me to the border didn't mince his words. "They are trouble," he said. "They are always trouble. And soon, in Macedonia, they will have more people than we have. They have babies like battery hens. Soon they will be stealing and causing trouble, just like always."

It was the language of the Balkans. The words and the thoughts that fester into hatreds that lead inevitably down the road to ethnic cleansing and mass murder.

I looked once more over the seething mass of tragic humanity and was struck by the awful realisation that Milosevic and and his brand of ruthless barbarism might just be winning. In just eight days, his uniformed thugs have cleared an entire province of Europe, using the same techniques that the Nazi oppressors employed nearly 60 years ago.

Now, like a gambler who is contemptuous of the rules, Milosevic has put a gun on the table and swept away the chips - in this case the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians. Soon he will be demanding a new deck and fresh deal.