War In The Balkans: Miracle of Macedonia begins as 2,000 a day fly out

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BY NIGHT you could mistake them for ordinary little towns. There are now seven of them, spread out in a 30-mile arc against the rugged mountains of northern Macedonia. Electric lights blaze out and occasionally you hear the sound of children at play or even some voices singing. But daybreak reveals the pitiless reality of barbed wire rat-traps that could have been custom-built for the lost and the damned.

In just 43 days these miniature cities, built of rubber, plastic and canvas, have been created to cope with the biggest flood of human debris seen in Europe in half a century, asKosovo has been emptied of its Albanian population. And each day the camps of Macedonia grow fatter as thousands more are crammed in. The newest of them is called Cegrane. Work on it started eight days ago. Yesterday there were 33,000 people living there, sharing a dozen toilets and packed 40 to a tent designed for 12.

Four weeks ago I saw the first of these camps, Stankovic 1,being prepared. The British army officer whose men built it in two days told me it could hold up to 5,000. Today there are 38,000 there, queuing for five hours for cold food and three hours to use basic latrines. Hour after hour they wander listlessly, thousands of them, peering out through the wire. They have committed no crime, but they being held as virtual prisoners.

It was cool yesterday, but in a few weeks the full heat of summer will hit Macedonia, where temperatures can reach 40C.Medical staff say epidemics are a certainty and are already being prepared for. But down the road in the capital, Skopje, the experts aremaking plans for winter. Nobody talks in terms of weeks. They talk of months, even years.

The government of Macedonia, enraged that it has been accused of demanding millions of dollars in aid and of routinely closing its borders to thousands of Kosovan Albanians, says UN High Commission for Refugees officials lied about 1,000 Albanians being forced back across the border. The government says Macedonia is bearing the burden of the catastrophe, while the West spends millions on bombs and gives them only pennies.

It was wrong about the border incident. Its troops did drive the people back. But it is right about everything else. Macedonia is close to being economically and physically disrupted beyond repair by theunending flow of refugees, and the government is asking now for what it always felt was the only solution.

It is demanding one of the biggest airlifts in history, that will take up to 200,000 refugees and deposit them in 21 countries around the world. Such an airlift may already be starting.

Yesterday Paula Ghedinia, a UNHCR spokeswoman, said that nearly 2,000 people had left Skopje airport the day before. And there were "hopeful signals" that nations from Australia to Ireland were preparing to send aircraft to take unspecified numbers of refugees.

These host nations have set up in the camps the oddest recruitment centres imaginable, offering anything from apartment blocks in Finland to unused holiday camps in France.

Strict criteria, says the UNHCR, have been laid down. First to go will be the sick, the old and the disabled, followed by families who have managed to stay together.

Some 23,000 Albanians have already left for a dozen countries. But there have been hints of corruption in the process. Rumours that agents employed by host countries have been taking bribes to help people jump the queue are being investigated at a high level. Arthur Graff, an observer with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, isconvinced that such corruption is taking place.

"Where you have desperate people you will find greedy people," he said. "And in these camps a criminal hierarchy and a black market is already developing. If a man is desperate enough to get his kids to America, say, he will find the money. And there will be somebody to take the money."

But with the announcement of the airlift something else - something as deeply tragic as the rape of Kosovo itself - is being tacitly acknowledge by everybody, including the Kosovo Albanians. This may be the beginning of the diaspora of an entire, once thriving community, on a scale that has only been witnessed a few times in a turbulent world. The very act of flying thousands of miles to a strange land is to admit to the possibility that the Kosovars will never return.

For weeks the refugees have been saying that they want to stay close to their homeland, with the opportunity of going in under friendly guns.

Now, bewildered and broken, they just want to get out of the camps and the appalling squalor and hopelessness that they have been experiencing. If it means getting on a bus to Skopje airport, with only a paper bag of belongings and the clothes they stand up in, then so be it.

At Stankovic 1, Hatrizi Hashim, a 65-year-old carpenter who has been in the camps for three weeks with his extended family of 14, said he had some family in America, although he was not sure of their location. He will go there if he is allowed, he said.

"We cannot stay here because this place is death for us," he said. "Already we are sick at heart and soon our bodies will be sick. I don't care where I go. But I will not stay behind wires and watch my children and grandchildren weep all day. We cannot cook hot food. We have nothing to do but walk all day and comfort each other at night. We just wake up in the morning and join the queues for our rations and to wash and use the toilet. We have been here only 20 days, but already we know we are in hell."

Hell or not, there is much to be admired in these people. The human spirit, even in a filthy prison, is hard to destroy. Yesterday, I watched as nearly 200 children gathered spontaneously and being playing a huge, uproarious game that involved running around in circles and jumping into empty spaces. The laughter and rang across the camp.

In a few years' time these same children, grown up and speaking new languages, will perhaps be going to college in Florida, or driving taxis in Bradford, with only a faint folk memory of a place called Kosovo.