Our correspondent Kitty McKinsey returned last week from almost a month among the ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing into Macedonia to escape Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. Following are her personal impressions of the refugee crisis and its human dimensions.
Skopje, 27 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The face of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's attempts to clear Kosovo of all its ethnic Albanian inhabitants will, for me, forever be that of a little black-haired 12-year-old girl.
As I interviewed refugees in the Stenkovec refugee camp one day towards the end of my nearly month-long stay in Macedonia, the little girl followed me relentlessly, peering up at me silently with unblinking brown eyes from under long thick eyelashes. She never did talk to me -- but her neighbor told me that the child had seen her grandfather and two uncles killed by Serbian paramilitaries in her own home just before she was expelled from Kosovo with the remaining members of her family.
The horrors the Kosovars -- even small children -- have had to endure are quite literally unimaginable to most people. It's become a cliche to say so, but the expulsion of the Kosovars is a disgrace to Europe at the end of the 20th century.
Perhaps the tragedy has struck home more to the journalists, NATO soldiers and aid workers in Macedonia precisely because these refugees are Europeans whose lives -- but for their horrible fate -- are our own. It is easy to picture ourselves in the position of the Kosovars, many of whom were urban dwellers living in large European houses with all the modern amenities like satellite dishes and cell phones. They look like us, they dress like us, they had lives much like all of ours.
Then in one moment they were sent fleeing in terror with often only the clothes on their backs, robbed even of their very identities as their passports and other documents were taken from them by the Serbs. Their houses were often blown up or burned behind them as whole villages, towns and cities were emptied. And now they are crammed in tents in muddy fields, washing themselves in small plastic basins, depending on aid workers for handouts of food, and mourning their enormous losses.
What was particularly striking about the refugees' accounts was their consistency. When refugees told of being expelled from their homes, they were careful to say who did it -- in many cases masked paramilitaries or Serbian special police loyal to Milosevic, rather than the regular soldiers of the Yugoslav army.
They also usually volunteered to write down the names of the victims if they saw people killed in front of their eyes. I often had the feeling the refugees felt they were giving testimony, as if in some future war crimes court.
All of the refugees in Macedonia's camps tell their stories in emotionless voices, almost monotones, that belie the murders, expulsions and rapes they have experienced or witnessed. When the shock passes and the psychological traumas begin, there is going to be an enormous need for psychiatrists to treat the hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Another deeply striking feature was the dignity the refugees retained, despite having gone through unimaginable horrors and humiliation.
On the morning the Brazda camp was first opening at Stenkovec to take in the thousands of refugees who had been stranded in a no-man's land on the Macedonian border, I allowed one Kosovar man to use my cell phone to call his relatives in Switzerland. A few minutes later he reappeared and handed me a tiny carton of chocolate milk he'd just been given by a NATO soldier -- probably his first bit of sustenance in days. Even in these circumstances he'd kept his pride -- he didn't take the phone call for free, but offered a token in return.
One of the British soldiers handing out bread in Brazda also told me she was impressed that the refugees only took as much food as they needed. If they were offered two loaves of bread and only needed one, they'd hand back the other one, despite having just experienced days or even weeks of near starvation.
The Kosovar refugees also put the lie to Milosevic's propaganda -- that they are fleeing the NATO bombing. All of the refugees I interviewed said they fled at the point of Serb guns or tanks, and they were universal in supporting the NATO air strikes and in pinning their hopes for a return to their homes on NATO ground troops. At the same time, Milosevic's actions have totally destroyed their faith in the passive resistance preached and practiced for a decade by their leader Ibrahim Rugova. Milosevic has been the best recruiter for the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). As one young ethnic Albanian man put it, "Gandhi-ism is dead forever for the Kosovars."