Stuck In The Macedonian Mud

With the camps in Macedonia crammed to bursting, many Kosovo refugees wish to move to third countries out of the region.

Stuck In The Macedonian Mud

With the camps in Macedonia crammed to bursting, many Kosovo refugees wish to move to third countries out of the region.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

As Kosovo Albanian refugees enter Macedonia at the Blace border crossing, the relief can be seen on their faces. After weeks of uncertainty, they finally feel safe. Hungry and exhausted from days sleeping rough and travelling across hazardous terrain, they queue patiently to register - determined to show that their spirit remains unbroken.


This is just as well: the next stage of their ordeal is just beginning.


With between 4,000 and 8,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees arriving in Macedonia every day, the aid agencies cannot keep up with the huge demand for accommodation. The nearest refugee camps at Stenkovec and Brazde were built to house 30,000 people. More than 60,000 people are now living there crammed into tents. The new arrivals will have to sleep in the open for the first few nights.


"A few days ago someone told me about the stench at Stenkovec, but I did not believe him," said a taxi driver who now ferries journalists to the camp from Skopje. "After I saw conditions with my own eyes, I decided that it stinks of human tragedy." Having seen conditions for himself, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared, "This is not a battle for NATO. This is not a battle for territory. This is a battle for humanity."


He promised that Britain would take in more refugees and announced a doubling of aid to the region. from £20 million to £40 million ($62 million). British ministers suggest that the UK - which to date has only received a few hundred - could soon be accepting up to 1,000 refugees a week. But even these additional measures are unlikely to be sufficient.


Aid workers say the camps are full to overflowing. The newest camp at Cegrane, though still under construction, is already crammed to bursting point. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has asked the Macedonian government for permission to build new camps.


Trains crammed with refugees continue arriving at the Macedonian border. According to UNHCR officials, tens of thousand more refugees are expected to arrive in the coming days. By contrast, only a few hundred have been airlifted to other countries.


Just a week ago the rain and cold made life miserable for the refugees. While visiting the Stenkovec camp, Hollywood star Richard Gere asked a young refugee what she found most difficult in the camp-- a shortage of food or water, or something else?


"The mud", the refugee replied. A week ago refugees prayed for sun. Now, the sun and the heat bring with them new health hazards. The refugees require regular water supplies and better sanitation facilities.


"Too many people in such a small space," was the verdict of one UNHCR official who warns that overcrowding in the refugee camps could lead to unrest. UNHCR spokesman Kris Janovski has even mentioned the possibility of riots. At present some 90,000 Kosovo Albanians are housed in the camps, a little less than half of total figure of 190,000 who have sought refuge in Macedonia. Most of the rest have been put up in private homes.


Dizonska Street is a densely populated street near the centre of Skopje. It is a poor part of town and the houses are generally single-storey constructions, each with two or three rooms and outdoor toilets.


It is also home to many Kosovo Albanians who have been taken in by their ethnic kin. Macedonian Albanians have turned over parts of their homes to the refugees, some of whom sleep 30 to 40 in a single room.. The yards are filled with children, some of whom have already enrolled in school.


The refugees do not receive much humanitarian aid. Host families share their own meagre resources with their guests. "We don't have a lot, but all we have we'll share with them," they say. "What's ours is theirs."


The town of Tetovo is in many ways the unofficial Albanian capital of Macedonia. Even before the influx of Kosovo refugees, ethnic Albanians made up almost 80 per cent of the population. Now the proportion of Albanians is even greater.


The two biggest ethnic Albanian political parties in Macedonia are based in Tetovo and both have helped put up as many refugees as possible in private houses. It is the same story in predominantly-Albanian villages throughout western Macedonia.


The hundreds of refugees who have crossed the Kosovo-Macedonian border unofficially, after trudging over the ice-covered mountain of Popova Sapka, have found shelter and their first hot meal in few weeks in the small villages of Lisec, Lipkovo and Malina.


Two weeks ago, some 6,000 Kosovo Albanians were put up there in private homes for several days before UNHCR could come to their aid.


In the first days of the crisis, most refugees wanted to remain as close as possible to Kosovo, in the hopes of an early return. Now given the conditions, many now wish to move on to third countries out of the region.


Iso Rusi is a journalist with the newspaper Fokus in Skopje.


Macedonia, Kosovo
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