War in The Balkans - Refugees; Database of hope helps the missing

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OPPOSITE THE lunchtime food queue, behind the Israeli-run field hospital in the refugee camp at Brazda, is a big green tent for what the aid workers in Macedonia call the "special cases". Inside the hustle and bustle of camp life recedes. There is no chatter, no noisy babies or teenagers. Instead, there are elderly people, refugees from Kosovo so feeble or sick that it is a wonder they made it through at all.

They lie here all day, barely moving, wrapped in shapeless clothes and shawls, talking in quiet voices. One old couple do not even have names. Mute or mentally disabled, they lie here all day, staring into space. Among them is a 65-year-old man named Muhamed Saliha. He is one of the most active. A fortnight ago, he had a lung operation; immediately afterwards, the Serbs deported him from Kosovo with 30 members of his extended family.

At the border, he was separated from them all, apart from his 99-year- old mother. She lies beside him. He lost his wife; his missing sons and daughters had young children. "We suffer more from thinking of our families than from our sickness," he says, clutching a battered X-ray print of his darkened lungs. This X-ray is what makes him a "special case".

But help, perhaps, is at hand. It is to be found on the other side of Brazda, in a section of tents that is the camp's nerve centre. Here the British army, which built Brazda, are handing over its running to civilian agencies. The job of registering the residents has been taken in hand by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Now the focus is shifting to a tent bearing the crest of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and known as the Tracing Centre. If there is anything that can be done for Mr Saliha, it is here that it will be begin.

More than half a million Kosovo Albanians have been driven from their homes in the past three weeks and for most, the physical dangers of hunger, exposure and violence are past. But the chaos of the refugee exodus has created a different kind of suffering far more difficult to alleviate - the anguish of separated families.

No one knows how many individuals have been affected, but the task is enormous. The ICRC operation is still in its early stages and for now it is documenting only separated children and parents, plus the elderly, the sick, pregnant women and others unable to look after themselves. The Red Cross volunteers at Brazda, many of them refugees, shake their heads when asked how many inquiries they receive - they amount to hundreds, every day.

The ICRC has been attempting to reunite people divided by conflict ever since its foundation in the 19th century and the basic task has changed little in the past 80 years. In a library in southern Germany are seven million cards bearing the names of prisoners of war and displaced civilians from the First World War; the Second World War generated 20 million more. In terms of sophistication, the Red Cross' techniques for bringing people together have been far outstripped by the development of the weaponry which drives them apart. But here that is changing - the refugee crisis in the Balkans is turning out to be the first humanitarian crisis in which high technology provides solutions as well as suffering.

In part, this is a result of its location - a developed European country with a literate, urban population. The symbol of this is the mobile phone, which is seen everywhere in the distressed areas - and not just in the hands of journalists. "That's one of the unique things about this crisis," says the ICRC's tracing co-ordinator, Martin Merkelbach. "After a situation like Rwanda, it's extraordinary."

In its office in Skopje, Mr Merkelbach's division is roadtesting its newest piece of technology - an internal satellite communications system installed two years ago. It employs the same network used by the International Association of Travel Agents; with it, messages can be sent from one Red Cross branch to another instantaneously to reconnect widely dispersed refugees. Having been gathered with pen and ink, information about lost children and parents can be collated and cross-referenced on computer.

Computer technicians are being flown in from Geneva; there is talk of transferring the pathetic lists of lost children which flap from walls and noticeboards in the camps to an Internet site. Mr Merkelbach talks of the day when volunteers will go out into camps with modems through which refugees will communicate with relatives via e-mail.

But for now, the process is agonisingly slow. No more than a few dozen people have been reunited by the ICRC. Of the 130,000 lost children registered in Rwanda, fewer than half have found their parents. Even the file cards from 1918 are still open; in fact they are in active use. "Every day there are requests relating to the Second World War," says Mr Merkelbach. "The First World War ones are not so common but we still get them."

It is a peculiar feeling, part inspiring and part chilling, to stand in the Brazda camp and realise that 60 years from now the business of this place may still not be done.