War In The Balkans: Stateless, landless and derelict: the forlorn lost tribe of Kosovo

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT HAPPENED in a forest, more than 5,000 feet above sea level and where snow lay thick on the ground. It is just one small story. But it contains the very essence of Kosovo's growing tragedy. It was the night the babies died.

I heard the story yesterday, first-hand, from five people who were there - two journalists and three Kosovan refugees who became the undertakers of the forest. Late on Monday, a large group of Kosovo Albanians - gathered by chance like the tributaries of a swollen human river as they fled from a dozen different hamlets and villages that had been razed by tank fire, mortar bombs and grenades - finally made it over the top of the mountain and into Macedonia. But they were several miles away from the border checkpoint where they had been instructed to go, and a large group of Macedonian soldiers - frightened and tense themselves - refused to let them go down to the valley floor.

As temperatures fell below freezing, the group's leaders begged the soldiers to let them descend to the road, several thousand feet below, where it was warmer. They pleaded that not only were there about 100 old people in the group, many of them in their eighties and nineties, there were also about 50 infants in arms, several nursing mothers, and at least two young girls who were already in labour. They were ordered at gunpoint to remain on the mountain. All pleas for a doctor or a midwife were ignored.

During the night, two of the infants died and both pregnant girls delivered stillborn babies. Still in darkness, a strange ceremony took place, lit by the dozens of camp fires, as the tiny bodies were wrapped in blankets and placed in shallow graves. A tree was marked - presumably for some sort of authority to come and exhume the bodies.

I don't know why this particular story stood out so markedly, and why a young woman photographer, a veteran of the Bosnian campaign, should suddenly burst into tears. After all, we had been listening to far worse - on the unique Serbian scale of criminal lunacy - for nearly six hours. It was still dark when we arrived and all over the hillside we could see the glow of small fires. But the border installation, a tin-roofed arcade over the main Macedonia-Kosovo highway, was silent.

Inside, dour-faced, twitchy Macedonian police and army officers drank mugs of tea and waited for the next wave in the human avalanche that has been rolling off the Black Mountain and through the dozens of passes for the past seven days. At daybreak, you began to see the scale of it all. Tiny ant-like figures, stretching back for miles, came down off the mountain, following the twisting, narrow track that took them to the river. There were no vehicles of any kind. Tractors, cars, bicycles and anything else that was mobile had been taken from them by the hundreds of Serb official and irregular troops - as well as thousands of dollars-worth of currency and every scrap of official paperwork they had.

At a stroke they had been turned into invisible human beings, stateless, landless and derelict. Many of them had not been poor - Albanians are good businessmen; they trade, they raise sheep, they buy and sell property. Now they really were all equal. But they were alive.

The border-post buildings were totally inadequate to deal with this flood. A special "inspection site" had been set up on a flat piece of scrubland by the river. And there, in the freezing mists, they were forced to wait in groups of several hundred to be processed by that great symbol of officialdom - two bored men in uniform, with piles of forms, huge metal stamps and a large plastic table.

The images are too vast to be recalled in total. I saw men and women in their ninth decade, one of them being wheeled in a child's pushchair, and another, bent double with a twisted back, being carried by two men in their sixties.

I saw hundreds of babies being carried in filthy blankets, their heads covered against the cold, being fed muddy water from the brackish river. One woman, speechless with exhaustion, pulled a handkerchief from her baby's face and I could see that it was blue, with the lips and eyes rimmed in white. It didn't take a medical degree to see that this child was suffering from hypothermia, and her mother had at least six miles to walk before there would be any chance of transport. For some reason the Macedonians had refused to let a huge armada of cars and taxis, hired by the refugees' Albanian relatives, come any nearer than that.

The stories are too horrific to tell in detail. I heard of murder, rape, looting, and persistent abuse - by boot and rifle-butt. I heard of several hundred people hiding in a cave in an old quarry, being taunted from outside by men firing machine-pistol volleys into the air. I heard of the "intelligentsia",

to an Albanian, anybody who has been to university or who has a title belongs to the intelligentsia, being rooted out of their offices, homes and shops and marched off to God knows where.

There were a dozen almost identical accounts of the operational technique of ethnic cleansing.

First the roar of tanks coming down the valleys, then the sound of whistles being blown and the firing of automatic weapons, as the villages and hamlets that dot southern Kosovo - a place the size of Devon - are surrounded by regular soldiers who order the people to move.

Then come the hard men, often masked, who separate the important ones from the peasants. The peasants are forced south, taking only what they can carry, where they must brave further "checkpoints" in the form of armed robbers, before they reach the border. The "important ones" stay behind.

I asked the question, no matter how silly it sounded, which forms the recent refrain by Serbian media specialists in European capitals. Did the bombing by Nato cause them to run? One old man just shook his head: "No bombs. I hear no bombs. Just those animals." He repeated the word twice: "Animals. Animals." Then he spat and wept.

I drove back to the Macedonian capital, Skopje, in time for lunch and saw the top brass of the multinational Nato force going about their elegant business, while their 12,000 so-far unused troops and their armour lay far, wide and impotent in a 10-mile arc, south of the border. And I saw the aid workers, from a bewildering variety of both official and charity armies, busy on their mobile phones discussing logistics - medical supplies, tents and blankets needed - and making plans for the coming days and perhaps months.

At the Inter-Continental Hotel, the steak au poivre was being cut, between phone calls, and washed down with the fiery Macedonian wine.

These were committed and clever men, I knew, doing their planning. But up at the border itself, 15 miles of hard road away, there was nothing for the refugees: people who had been travelling for days - geriatrics, pregnant women, cripples and babies - in fear of their lives.

Not a single doctor, not a single aid worker, not a single Red Cross official, not one Nato observer was present. There were no reception centres. No hot food. No medical supplies. No buses. Nothing. Near the border post were two small khaki tents emblazoned with the Red Cross. I went to speak to the officials. The tents were empty.

For the lost tribe of Kosovo Albanians, all that met them was the full orchestra of the international media - clicking,whirring, and asking endless questions - and two young men from the Macedonian version of the Salvation Army, handing out stale, inedible bread.

Somewhere, somehow, somebody should have been here with hot food and shelter at the very least. But the tribe didn't seem to notice. In their eyes, young and old, there was only that horrifying look - the weariness that lies beyond suffering and terror.

James Dalrymple