After 12 hours on the road, a whole village reaches safety

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The Independent Online

After a 12 hour mountain trek through the night, hundreds of Macedonian Albanians streamed into the Kosovo village of Donje Ljubinje early yesterday, fleeing the guns of the Macedonian army.

After a 12 hour mountain trek through the night, hundreds of Macedonian Albanians streamed into the Kosovo village of Donje Ljubinje early yesterday, fleeing the guns of the Macedonian army.

Many of the women and children who had made the rocky journey from the Macedonian village of Vejce, turned tail in terror on arrival at the sight of soldiers - in fact, German K-For peace-keepers sent out to help them. Villagers scrambled up shale tracks into the woods to coax them down.

The first of some 600 Macedonian Albanians to seek shelter arrived as night fell - the rest at half-hourly intervals until dawn. According to some reports, the entire 1,200 population of the village of Vejce abandoned their homes.

They left after the attacks moved closer and closer to their houses. Some left in the morning, arriving on Sunday evening, while others waited until a pause in the barrage during the evening gave them breathing space to head for the snowy mountain passes. As well as the families who arrived in Donje Ljubinje, which lies due north of the area of Sunday's fighting, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said another 250 refugees also arrived in Prizren, Kosovo.

As night set in on Sunday, the villagers of Donje Ljubinje had laid out bottles of Fanta, plastic cups of long-life milk and fat hunks of bread in a hall nestled under the silver nutshell and fairy-lit minaret of the village mosque. Most of the red-eyed arrivals sipped weakly at some milk - too tired to stomach any more after their journey.

Up black steps near the mosque, torches flashed. The small community of Bosnian Muslims living at the foot of the huge snow-capped Shar mountains at the edge of Kosovo, had sent a group up the hills to guide down the Macedonian refugees they were expecting.

"This time two years ago we were running the other way. That's why we're running to help them now - because they helped us then," said Muhamed Rama, lately used to seeing the flares and glow of explosions from across the mountainous border.

Clusters of white headscarves, stripy pantaloons, and scrawny ponies had begun to trickle in at early evening. An old woman, helped off her pony and nearly toppling over, pointed to her feet.

Wearing only socks, she padded up the winding alleyway to the mosque leaving wet footprints, a tiny figure flanked by two villagers. An old man who was afraid to be named told that this was the first time he had left his village since the second world war. His two companions had never left before.

The refugees told how, on Sunday, the Macedonian army bombardment had started to get closer and, by midday, almost the whole village, about 1,200 people, had upped and left.

"First the helicopters came at 6am," said Lezam Sylejmani, 30, "and they [the Macedonian army] dropped soldiers in a field close to our village. Children started panicking and people started to leave the village. Then, at around 10 o'clock, they started to fire inside the village. They were firing indiscriminately even though there were a lot of families inside.

"We picked up all the necessary stuff and headed towards the hills in the direction of Kosovo. Just before five o'clock, two helicopters flying overhead fired into the woods, which were filled with refugees. They could have seen the refugees before they fired. We needed to leave our cattle behind and some people remained in the village."

Throughout the night, bewildered families slithered down the final strait into the village and tied up their mud-splattered ponies laden with bags of clothes and blankets. Women were carrying bundles of babies, and some carried the elderly on their backs.

At 6.45am yesterday, as the light was breaking through and the scale of the mountains emerging from the murk, Isaak Poti, 36 stumbled down to the village, clutching a bag containing homemade bread and one shoe. He also told that the helicopters had fired twice near the people.

When he left, shells, he said, were falling everywhere indiscriminately in the nearby village of Selce. The whole village, he said, was on its way.

"I want to tell the world who the real terrorists are. With all this pain they [the Macedonians] have caused to us, they have just infuriated our hatred. It is very difficult to see us living there again. Our rebels have Macedonian civilians in their hands and are not touching them. They are not terrorists," said Mr Poti. "There were old people - I know of one old woman and one old man - in the snow who couldn't walk any more. We had to leave them. They are still there," he said.

There were no reports of injuries among yesterday's influx.

More than 4,500 people from Macedonia have crossed into Kosovo since mid-February, when the first rumblings of clashes between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and government security forces erupted.

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