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Macedonia: Refugee Camp Operates Like Small City

  • Kitty McKinsey

Stenkovec, Macedonia; 14 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Emin Muharemi, a 50-year-old ethnic Albanian refugee, sits in a camp in northern Macedonia and stares at nearby snow-covered Mount Luboten, which forms the border between Macedonia and his homeland of Kosovo.

"I spend the whole day looking at that mountain in Kosovo," Muharemi says, turning to his son. "Look how near that mountain is, and we can't go there."

Muharemi is one of the estimated 25,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo now in the Brazda refugee transit camp, which was established last week at the Stenkovec airfield north of the Macedonian capital, Skopje.

Brazda was NATO's emergency response to the plight of some 50,000 Kosovars who were stranded in a muddy field on the Kosovo-Macedonian border at Blace. The plight of the refugees sparked fierce international criticism of the Macedonian government.

In just one night, British NATO soldiers already in the country erected the first 500 tents at Stenkovec, providing the first bit of civilization for refugees who had been out in the rain, without shelter or food, for many days. The camp is now run by NATO but is due to be turned over shortly to the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR.

The original plan was that the refugees would stay just 48 hours at Brazda before moving on to more permanent camps elsewhere in Macedonia, or flying out to other countries,

But just 10 days after it opened, Brazda is now functioning as a small, efficient city, with no signs that it intends to go out of business any time soon. Every refugee has a tent to sleep in, and hot meals are available. The Red Cross is providing a plentiful supply of clean water. Women wash their children and clean laundry in small plastic basins. There is even an efficient garbage-collection service.

In the sunshine, children play football with bright blue plastic balls, provided by the chaplain of the British NATO force. Their happy cries fill the air, with no echo of the horrors they say they witnessed after being expelled at gunpoint from their homes by Serb forces. In the evenings, a soldier from the Irish Guards conducts a sing-along with Irish and country-western songs.

Colonel Hezi Levi -- commander of the Israeli Defense Forces' field hospital -- says it is clear now that Brazda is turning into more than just an emergency transit facility:

"I won't say that it's going to be permanent, but I can hardly say that it's going to last just a few days. Because there is movement of refugees in and there is out to other countries, mainly till now Germany, and as you've heard, we've also sent about 100 refugees today to Israel by aircraft. Israel was willing to accept them. So it's my guess it's going to last a few weeks, at least until there is any solution."

Colonel Levi's project, the Israeli field hospital, is one of the most impressive facilities in the camp. It was erected in just 20 hours, less than two days after Israel made the decision to send it to Brazda last week.

Its services and equipment may well be more complete than what the refugees had access to in their hometowns in Kosovo. It has an emergency room and two hospital wards, one for elderly people and one for newborn babies, complete with incubators. There is a laboratory, an X-ray machine, an ultrasound machine and a well-stocked pharmacy.

The tent hospital treats about 150 patients per day and has delivered seven babies. But Colonel Levi is most pleased with a major operation his surgeons performed:

"We've had yesterday an appendectomy to an 80-year old lady who came with abdominal pain. And we diagnosed it. We operated on her. It was appendicitis. And now she's sitting right on the chair in the grass, enjoying herself in the sun."

Now that emergency cases of dehydration and hunger have been taken care of, the main problem for most refugees is tracing family members who became separated in the frantic flight from Kosovo.

Junuz Kadriu is an ethnic Albanian Macedonian who is volunteering with the Red Cross in Brazda. He says he's seen some heartbreaking cases. "In some cases, the father has been sent to Germany and the mother and children to Turkey," he says. "Many people have lost their children, mother, father, cousin and so on."

He says the worst case he's seen was where two children were sent to Skopje and the mother was left in Brazda. Kadriu says the mother couldn't leave the camp, and the Macedonians would not allow the children to join her inside until the Red Cross intervened.

The Red Cross is gradually registering the thousands of refugees, many of whom were stripped of their identity documents by Serbian forces as they were expelled. A bulletin board in front of the Red Cross tent contains a simple list of names, ages and towns and tells a tragic story of children as young as six months old who are missing.

Red Cross spokesman James Ackley says reuniting such children with their parents is his organization's first priority:

"Our key right now is to focus on the hardship cases, the children who have lost their parents, the parents who have lost their children. As of this morning, we already had 242 cases who have been registered, either parents registering or children. They just can't find each other. A total of another 560 cases of adult family members, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers -- we expect those numbers to rise. Right now, the fluidity of the situation in Albania, the continued fluidity in Kosovo, it's very hard to get everybody registered."

As UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says, "No refugee camp is a comfortable place to stay." But compared to sleeping in the forests and mountains of Kosovo, being crammed into train cars for deportation to Macedonia, or sleeping in the open at Blace, Brazda makes a decent temporary home.

Refugees interviewed by RFE/RL expressed satisfaction with the services offered in Brazda. The main complaints are a lack of showers and of boredom. The refugees sit around and talk endlessly about whether they'll ever go home. "It's boring here, very boring," said 32-year-old Gylere Hyseni.

The only bitter complaint came from Ilirjana Matoshi, a 22-year-old economics student from the Kosovo capital, Pristina.

"At the start of the 21st century, we are living like animals here. It is so bad."