War in the Balkans: Refugees' Arrival - `How do we get home from Turkey?'

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The Independent Online
"HOW CAN we get home?" It was the first thing she said as she stumbled from the bus. The waiting Turkish soldiers stared in amazement. This wasn't in the script. Wasn't she happy to be here? they asked. All she could do was repeat her question: "But how do we get home from here?"

These were the first refugees to be airlifted out of Macedonia. As they queued once again, this time to get into a Turkish refugee camp near the border town of Kirklareli, the Kosovars told how they had been forced on to the planes by Macedonian police. "We didn't even know where we were going until they told us," said one man.

Most of them were just relieved to get out. "The Macedonians are as bad as the Serbs," said Fyle Cekoj, who fled to Macedonia from Pristina. "We'd be happier at home, but we're happy to be here."

But, like every phase of the Kosovo crisis, this humanitarian operation had its casualties. One man told me how he had watched as a woman was pushed on to the waiting plane by Macedonian police. Macedonian border guards had refused to let her husband and son cross out of Kosovo, he said.

Ceva Ruslemi panicked as she and her three young children were separated from her sister-in-law's family at the refugee camp. She had wanted to go to Germany, she said, because her husband had been living there for six years.

At times yesterday, the whole airlift seemed like a huge publicity exercise for Turkey. The press was given an extensive guided tour of the refugee camp, but interviews with the refugees inside were strictly off-limits. Instead, we were shown Turkish soldiers setting up a forest of tents. Each one bore the legend "Turkish Red Crescent".

At one point the local football team arrived bearing food and children's toys for the refugees. Their cars were draped in the Turkish flag.

Turkey has rushed to the forefront of countries opening their doors to the refugees, saying it will take up to 20,000. Turks have long identified themselves with the beleaguered Muslim people of the Balkans. The fact that there is a small ethnically Turkish minority in Kosovo has strengthened the feelings of brother- hood. It is one of the only Nato countries that has said it is prepared to commit ground troops from the start of the air strike.

But the country is also looking to cement its status as a regional power. At the weekend, a mass circulation daily newspaper demanded to know why Turkey was not living up to its historical role in the region. That historical role was as an imperial power.