War in The Balkans: Refugees choke the roads as bloody clearance resumes

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The Independent Online
IT WAS no more than 50 yards to the buses but, for the unshaven man in the jeans and black coat, it was 50 yards too far. The volunteer doctors kept saying, "He's all right, he's all right," but it was obvious that he wasn't. After three days and three nights living rough, in abandoned houses or in the open, his will gave up, and he collapsed in front of the barbed wire on the very threshold of Kosovo and Macedonia.

One of the doctors said he had a heart condition. His wife and his four little children seemed to know that this was serious, and cried hopelessly as he was driven away in an ambulance. They were beyond speech or consolation; we never even learnt his name.

The scene at the border crossing of Jazhince was not the worst Macedonia has seen. Compared to the situation earlier this month at nearby Blace, when 30,000 people wallowed helplessly in a muddy field for three days, it was calm and orderly. The Macedonian border guards still yell at the cowed refugees, but they do not kick or punch, and the registration procedure runs smoothly if slowly. It is no less chilling.

Thousands more Albanian refugees, including the seriously ill and wounded, were driven out of Kosovo yesterday as the second wave of ethnic cleansing by the Serb authorities reached a new climax.

By yesterday afternoon, a total of 12,000 people had left Kosovo during the previous 24 hours, crossing into Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, and the number was expected to increase today. The refugees, some of them clearly desperate, told stories of beatings, extortion, artillery bombardment and murders by the Serbian army, police and paramilitaries.

"The expulsions which were put on hold or slowed down over the last two weeks have now resumed with full force," said Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), speaking in Geneva. "The effort by the Serb authorities to expel the entire ethnic population of Kosovo is again under way." UNHCR officials said that 100,000 people were already on the move towards Macedonia.

At the Jazhince border crossing near the Macedonian town of Tetovo, 700 refugees waited on the Kosovo side of the border yesterday morning, having spent the night huddling in a ramshackle convoy of tractors and cars. Several elderly people lay exhausted on the ground, being tended to by a small group of volunteer doctors from the International Medical Corps.

"The police asked for money from us when we passed a checkpoint," said Fehmi Bllaca, head of Cernice village near the southern Kosovo town of Gjilane. "They stopped each tractor and said, `Either pay 100 Deutschmarks or we kill one person.' So we all had to pay, or hand over gold or jewellery. There are more people who are still to coming. I'm 200 per cent sure that the Serbs will force all the population out."

Some 3,000 people arrived at Blace by train from the towns of Urosevac and Kacanik, where they reported widespread burning of houses owned by ethnic Albanians, and rumours of the mass killing of 29 people in Kacanik last Tuesday.

One man, who had been sleeping in the open for three days with his family, displayed a pus-filled wound on his back where he said he had been struck by shrapnel from a Serb mortar shell which was fired into the yard of his house.

"The Serbs are gun-crazy," said a man named Bejt Berisha. "We were all so frightened - even the children couldn't sleep because of the bombardment. That's why we had to come down."

For some this was the dilemma - either to remain in the hills, getting sicker and hungrier, or to take their chances with the Serb guards at the station.

But many people were given no choice. "We can't know for sure exactly what is going on over there, but it's clear that it is systematic," said Henric Roskvist, of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the situation in Kosovo. "The Serbs are going through, village by village, and clearing people out of the entire area."

"A couple of months ago it would have seemed unbelievable to the civilised world that the Serbs would actually expel the entire civilian population," said Mr Janowski of the UNHCR. "But this seems to be reality now."

The political crisis which the refugees have created inside Macedonia remained unresolved, with the number of new arrivals far exceeding those being evacuated to third countries. Yugoslavia's treatment of the Kosovars has outraged Macedonia's own minority Albanian population, and the Skopje government is anxious about the destabilising effect the refugees could have on its own country's delicate ethnic balance.

Macedonia wants foreign governments to share the refugee burden, and there was concern yesterday that it might resort forcibly to expelling the refugees. But Western European governments say that evacuating the refugees from the region runs the risk of justifying the Serbs' ethnic cleansing policy. In the last three weeks, only 13,000 of the 125,000 new arrivals have been airlifted out, most of them to Germany, Turkey and Greece. The chances are high that at least that number will arrive in Macedonia tomorrow alone.

Leif Windmar, an OSCE observer, who spoke to refugees in Blace yesterday, said: "It seems as if people were pushed out of their homes this morning."

In Geneva, the UNHCR said that Yugoslav authorities had resumed the expulsions "with full force" and seemed intent on driving all those who remained of the 1.8 million ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.