War in the Balkans: The Refugees - A great tide of humanity is washed away, leaving only the old behind

Click to follow
THERE WAS no sign of life. Hours earlier the refugee camp at the village of Blace, on the Macedonian border with Kosovo, had been a mass of terrified people, pushing and shoving in long queues waiting to be processed by immigration officials. Now it was still. The only movement was of pink plastic sheeting from the deserted makeshift shelters flapping in the breeze, and a plume of dirty smoke spiralling from a pile of burning rubbish.

There were no road-blocks, no armed Macedonian police checking documents and none of the tension that had gripped the air for the past week.

Overnight, the Macedonians had cleared the massive, sprawling refugee camp, which had grown up next to the border post with the arrival of tens of thousands of desperate Kosovo Albanians. At its peak, the encampment had been home to at least 50,000 of these poor lost souls, but it was a situation that could not be allowed to continue.

When action came from the Macedonian authorities, it was swift and without consultation. On Monday night and Tuesday morning they flew up to 2,000 refugees to Turkey, tricking them on to the planes by telling them - those they told anything at all - that they were bound for Germany, where there is a large Albanian community. Then at 8pm on Tuesday and 2am yesterday, they emptied this huge camp of tens of thousands of people.

Armed police and soldiers marched around the camp, rousing people from their filthy, damp blankets and herding them on to the buses that would take them to their unknown destination. "They did this really rapidly. It was very calm," said Nicola Boyle, medical co-ordinator with the International Medical Corps, one of the few who witnessed the evacuation. "People were just too exhausted to ask where they were going. They were like zombies. It was incredible. They left everything they had - all the sorts of things they would need a few hours later wherever they arrived. I have never seen anything like this before. It was worse than Goma [the refugee camp for 2 million Rwandans in Congo]."

No one who saw the camp at Blace when it was full doubted that it needed to be emptied as soon as possible. The tens of thousands forced into the camp had only the most makeshift facilities. It was amazing that the death toll - about 50 - was not higher. But it was the way the Macedonians emptied the camp and the lack of consultation that surrounded the move that is likely to upset outsiders.

Walking around the remains of the camp's "shelters" - pathetic creations of twisted branches, plastic and cardboard - it was obvious that people had been forced to leave in a hurry, taking very little with them. Clothes, blankets, disposable nappies, bags of food and bottles of water were scattered everywhere. Those who had been forced to flee Kosovo with almost nothing had now lost their coats, even their shoes.

Beside one shelter an umbrella stood upright in the ground. A little further on lay a bright orange pencil case. Inside was a set of unused coloured pencils while on the flap of the case, in a child's writing, there was a name: Voeronh Leutrimi. Elsewhere among the piles of rubbish and waste there was a bagful of schoolbooks.

It was not just possessions that had been left behind at Blace, discarded in the forced rush. A short distance from the main camp, aid workers were trying to care for those people too old, sick or weak to travel,

In a green canvas tent there were about 10 elderly people lying almost hidden under blankets. One old man was sitting bolt upright, his hands shaking and his eyes fixed and unmoving. Another was trying to eat meat from a tin with a knife, scraping up what he dropped from the filthy groundsheet. Next to him lay an old woman, whining in misery as she waved her hands distractedly. "What do I have left?" asked Sanie Shala, 61, forced from her home in Pristina, and whose family had now disappeared."What is there for someone like me? There is no other destination for me than the grave."

Azize Marina, 70, also from Pristina, said she was too weak to stand. She had arrived at the border with her son but now he had gone. "I would rather die than be here," she said. "In fact I am already dead. My son has gone - I am all alone here. My daughters have gone too and my 13-year- old grandson. He is blind and deaf. What has happened to him I dare not think."

What happened to all these thousands of people remains unclear. Thousands were sent on long bus rides to Korce in Albania, where they were deposited last night in a sports stadium. Others were taken to the dozen or so transit camps set up around the Macedonian capital, Skopje.

At these camps, many of which were put up by British soldiers and other Nato troops, the refugees are provided with food, water, and shelter, before it is decided where they will go next. One United Nations official said yesterday they were unable to account for at least 30,000 of the people who, until the day before, had been at the Blace camp. Albanian officials said they thought thousands had disappeared into the ethnic Albanian areas of Macedonia.

Some suspect the operation was co-ordinated with the Yugoslav authorities. At the same time as the Macedonians moved into Blace, the Serbs cleared the queue of refugees waiting to get into Albania, closing the border post at Morini and herding the thousands of refugees back into Kosovo.

Yesterday that border post was as deserted as the one at Blace. The torment of Kosovo's refugees continues.