End of strife in this region still just a dreamBy W F Deedes
Wednesday 9 February 2000
Blace - There were traces of white on hills around Blace where snow had fallen when I passed through that frontier post between Kosovo and Macedonia yesterday.
There were, I remembered, traces of white there last Easter when the trees were in blossom and in the valley below 65,000 desperate refugees from Kosovo were locked in a muddy water meadow guarded at gunpoint by Macedonian police.
In neither peace nor war had I ever witnessed such a sea of human degradation. The field, a few yards short of the frontier post, is empty now. But everything else on a grey winter morning looked very much the same. The Macedonian frontier police examined our passports for a while. Then they asked the driver of our United Nations Children's Fund vehicle for its engine number. As if he knew.
This leopard hasn't changed its spots, I thought, as eventually we moved on. It clicked a shutter in my mind on the scene there at Easter 1999. The Nato bombing had begun on March 24, refugees streamed out of Kosovo towards Macedonia through Holy Week. By Easter Sunday the field at Blace was crammed.
I had arrived just in time to join an ominous meeting that night of top brass in the Hotel Continental, where I am staying now. They met to discuss the crisis at Blace. Clare Short had flown in from Britain. Lt Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the Nato ground force commander, was there. One or two deeply unhappy Macedonian ministers were also present.
"I want 10,000 out of that place tonight," Clare Short demanded. The ministers looked even more deeply unhappy and went to work on their mobile telephones. It became apparent to all present that tens of thousands of starving refugees in a muddy hell hole were grievously compromising our Government's declared humanitarian intentions. Hence, the presence of Clare Short.
A European official sitting next to me scribbled a note which informed me that 17 of the refugees had died on Saturday, including seven children. The figure for Sunday was 20, including six children. Next morning, Easter Monday, we went to Blace, 20 minutes' drive out of Skopje. A local Red Cross aid post had been set up to deal with the worst cases of exhaustion and panic. That was all.
The grim scene was made grimmer by the Macedonian authorities' refusal to allow aid agencies near the place. The only relief afforded to this despairing mass of human beings were loaves, bottles of water and thin plastic sheets. It presented a vast picture of human misery that television cameras, dodging the police, sent out to the world.
Astonished and ashamed that their police had been made to look like brutes, the Macedonian government pressed every available bus into service and began rapidly to clear the field. There is still bitterness felt in government circles at the way in which Nato, whose bombing of Serbia had precipitated the exodus, appeared in knight's armour while the Macedonian police were made to look brutal.
Some of the 5,000 refugees in Blace were moved to Struga on the Albanian frontier to which I returned this week for a heart-warming reunion with Mother Teresa Association workers. We went there in April searching for MTA, which had provided an invaluable medical alternative for those who mistrusted Serbs.
In response to our Christmas Appeal of 1998 Daily Telegraph readers had given around £130,000 for this organisation which was then torn apart and scattered by the Kosovo crisis. By some happy chance I reached Struga a day or two after the refugees had arrived. The town had greeted them and had individually volunteered to offer homes for every one. But where was the food for poor hosts to give their guests? I handed over enough of our readers' money to take care of that.
This week, the same faces from the MTA greeted me - and produced a copy of their accounts explaining how the readers' money had been spent in the crisis of last spring. The refugees have gone home, but the medical problems locally are huge. So the work goes on. That was the up side of my visit to the Struga. The down side was the collective centre where Roma refugees from Kosovo reminded us that for a lot of people the war is not over yet.
The Roma refugees occupy what was once a children's holiday home. Ohrid was a popular tourist centre for Europeans. It offers a gorgeous outlook across a lake and towards the snow-capped mountains, but a most doubtful future for the Romas who now have nowhere to go.
They exist in the state of semi-detention in Struga. Only 25 are allowed out at a time. The World Food Programme gives them food, but they have no money to speak of and some are living seven to a room. This is part of the detritus of our humanitarian war - and, alas, only a small part of it.
A school for Roma children, fostered by Unicef, opened two days ago. Demili Ramadan, a Roma schoolteacher, had 45 children between the ages of seven and 14 in his care. He had attended a secondary school in Gnjilade in Kosovo which he will never see again. No Roma has a future there. The seed of hope for the many left with "no hope" by the Kosovo war may lie somewhere here.
Watching a class of these children, I saw the force of Unicef's approach to the Millennium. To invest in education is a way to end strife. That is their dream, to put a sort of firebreak down against man's inhumanity to man, and help the young to find a better way. The Unicef programme in Macedonia is impressive. By the end of 2001, with luck, 50 per cent of the children will be attending pre-school.
Well, one finds at the end of this return journey there is a desperate need for some such contribution. For the end of strife in this region is nowhere in sight. Refugees are unpopular in every country. If they are Serbs or Roma and return to Kosovo, their lives are instantly at risk.
All my experience of civil wars in places such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Liberia supports that warning. Ethnic cleansing poisons its practitioners and they turn against each other. Besides the Romas and the Serbs there are hosts of refugees from Kosovo still in no man's land.
Tens of thousands, purged by the Serbs a decade ago, are still sheltering in Switzerland and Germany. There are reckoned to be around 100,000 in those parts. Now that Kosovo has been liberated, the Germans and the Swiss would like these "refugees" to move on. But has Kosovo been liberated? The country is in no man's land and will remain so until the international community can make up its mind what is best done with the place.
And then there are some 250,000 Serbs taking refuge from Kosovo in Serbia. Where does their future lie? The component parts of what was once communist Yugoslavia are suffering from a thrombosis. There is a blockage of the arteries.
In Macedonia the unemployment rate is nudging 40 per cent. Social services have been cut. None of this region is going to revive let alone flourish, as things are. Some tell me the region is crying out for another Marshall plan. I differ. What is lacking is the will of those in the West who, coming up to a year ago, decided to fight a humanitarian war and who indirectly piled up all those refugees at Blace, to see the business through.