War in the Balkans: Mother Clare, in red, sorts out the feeding of 1,000

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The Independent Online
THE ONCE green valley is now just a vast black pit of writhing, desperate humanity.

A handful are babies who were born here in the past four days. Thousands are babies who were carried by nursing mothers. Thousands more are men and women in their eighties and nineties. As each pitiless dawn breaks we see things that are worse than the day before. These people just keep coming down the road and turning the valley floor black. And then they just look up, mute and pleading, and wait in crowds so dense that even the unconscious cannot fall.

The mud is now over a foot deep and the stench of garbage and human waste is growing by the hour. The Macedonian troops who ring the densely packed thousands began wearing gas masks yesterday.

The mortality rate is rising.Over 30 went in the night, mostly babies, infants and the old and frail. Another seven died in the bright sunshine and heat of the morning. And the first lorry load of body bags was delivered around noon.

The valley of the River Lepenec, which forms the border between Kosovo and Macedonia, may become infamous as a place where we failed the very people we had come to save.Imagine 115,000 people trapped in a broad valley, probably two miles wide, for nearly four days. Then imagine it as a kind of gigantic queue. At the head of the queue, where crush barriers have formed a funnel, there are six thousand people standing on a 45- degree slope waiting for six hours to make the last, 30-foot climb up an embankment. Finally, imagine three hostile,bored officials demanding that each person must spend 15 minutes giving their name, place of birth, intended destination and family details.

All this produces the mathematics of the asylum and the four-day Kafkaesque pantomime was deliberate. The Macedonians wanted a major part of this endless river of the dispossessed to disappear from their land as quickly as possible - and the US, Germany and Britain almost fell over themselves to take more than 100,000 people. Other nations agreed to take thousands more.

It seemed to work. And, within hours of the deal being struck, at about 11.45am, something magical started to happen. Nearly 100 modern state buses, each one capable of taking about 90 people, began to roll up at the border.

Clare Short, in a vivid red tunic and smart patent leather loafers, arrived at about the same time and did her five minutes looking over the multitude and announcing that Tony had sent her to unblock the drain. Then she was off up to one of the big tented cities, created in less than 24 hours by the military about five miles up from the valley, trailing an army of British media in her wake.

The Secretary of State for International Development went for tea and buns with the brass and an hour later 10 busloads of ethnic Albanians arrived at the wrong side of the reception camp and nearly a mile from all the hot food and water that was being prepared for them by the British Army.

These people, about seven hundred of them, were in a bad way. They had been kept overnight in the buses until the camp was ready. They had already been thrown off the buses and ordered to get back on again. Many were fainting inside as the vehicles became ovens in the rising heat.

Clare spotted them and began to almost run. "Let's get them off the buses," she yelled. "Now. Let's get them out." Back and forth she ran and all around her the army brass, and the bewildered squaddies groaned. They knew that a snafu, big time, was about to go down, throwing their hard work into chaos.

But Clare was up and into the buses, followed by a mass of photographers, and she began the laying on of hands,giving her best profile to the cameras. As far as they were concerned she could have been the old lady in the shoe, but all they knew is that she and her photo opportunity were keeping them on this stifling bus.

She did this on a second bus, her officials making sure nobody got off before she arrived for more snaps. And then she gave her message to the world. "They are here, and they will be taken care of," she said.

It was almost biblical in its drama. Mother Clare had come to save them, and she was already doing it. The drain was being unblocked. When some of the hacks pointed out that all the hot food and water was half a mile away, she accused the offenders of "causing trouble, of making arguments".

Finally she had had enough of it, and almost ran across the fields, refusing to answer any more questions. She had been here for nearly two hours, and the problem was already being solved. It was a truly breathtaking performance and her minders could smell 10 minutes of TV prime-time.

Meanwhile the refugees wandered through their tent city, which contained neither food nor water. But the British Army was already cranking up the goods. Three trucks appeared with several tons of hot chicken, chocolate biscuits, milk, juice and water. The refugees fell on it like locusts and the three trucks became 10.

Whatever you thought of Ms Short's grandstanding, she had achieved something important by total accident. Seven hundred exhausted and famished people were getting fed and sheltered. A whole chain of induction, inspection, feeding and housing, laid on a mile away, had been bypassed. Within minutes of her departure an ITN reporter was telling the world she was a hero. But after four days of watching this complex and tragic disaster unfolding in the valley, I felt I had watched an opportunistic confidence trick.

Back down in the valley I realised something else. Nothing was really changing. Once again the mad mathematics provided the bitter truth.

As each bus pulled up above the awful funnel of men, women, babies and geriatrics, it took nearly 30 minutes to haul them the last 30 feet through the mud, and another 15 minutes to load each bus. There were nearly forty buses in the queue, capable of taking perhaps 4,500 in about 36 hours.

Already, according to Macedonia there were over 115,000 in the valley floor on both sides of the border and perhaps tens of thousands more blocked on the Pristina road.

Yesterday the sun came out strongly. It certainly kept many alive. But with the heat came the threat of something else, something far more dangerous than anything they have faced on the long march out of Kosovo. Millions of flies were hatching, feeding on a valley full of rotting garbage and other kinds of nameless waste. There may be 30,000 infants and old people still on the valley floor, all weak, dehydrated and exhausted. That could mean disease on a large scale.

Already every aid worker was wearing a white face mask. The soldiers had sweated behind their gas masks all day. All over the great heaving mass there was the spectre of unconscious people, men and women of all ages, being pulled out from the centre, passed overhead from hand to hand, suffering from illnesses that could be the first stages of epidemics. The next few days will become a race against time.

How many bus loads will it take to clear this human mess before the refugees begin to die in really big numbers - all before the eyes of 50 television cameras that are peering down into the pit and beaming it live to the world?