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Yugoslavia: UNHCR Alarmed As Refugee Flow Into Macedonia Stops

After some 20,000 Kosovar refugees crossed the border into Macedonia during just two days last week, the number crossing since then has fallen drastically. Our correspondent visits the border and looks for explanations.

Blace, Macedonia; 14 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The most eerie thing about the Blace border crossing from Kosovo into Macedonia is how quiet it is these days.

Early last month, Blace became a synonym for misery when some 50,000 ethnic Albanians driven from their homes in Kosovo were stranded there for up to a week without food, water, or toilets.

Just last week (May 3-4), Blace witnessed a huge exodus, as 20,000 deported Kosovars streamed through into Macedonia in a mere two days.

But now there's hardly a soul. Since the Macedonian authorities slammed their side of the border shut last week (May 5), the number of refugees coming across some days are measured in single digits.

Although the Macedonian government bowed to international pressure and reopened the border immediately last week, the flow has been turned off from the Serbian side.

Yesterday, a mere 46 refugees came across, and they told tales of at least 10,000 Kosovars who have been driven from their homes by Serbian forces, but are not allowed out of the province. Some said thousands of people are being held at train stations waiting for the trains that the Serbs have routinely been using to deport the Kosovars.

The spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, Paula Ghedini, told our correspondent in Skopje today that the UNHCR is "extremely concerned" about the fate of those people who have been driven from their homes but are still inside Kosovo.

"We do know that there are tens of thousands who would like to leave, who are quite desperate to leave, or in many cases [are] being forced to leave. Now the fact that they are not being allowed to either pass the Serbian side of the border, and then almost two weeks ago were not allowed into the Macedonian side is something that of course is extremely alarming for us."

Ghedini describes the Serbs' actions as "completely inexplicable" and speculates that they might be a type of psychological warfare -- driving the Kosovars from their homes, but keeping them in limbo by not letting them flee the country.

The reduction of the refugee flow to a trickle has had one side benefit - it has given the UNHCR breathing room to reduce the overcrowding in the nine refugee camps in Macedonia, particularly at the Stenkovec Camp.

"Yes, and in fact we have been able to alleviate a lot of the overcrowding that was the main problem at Stenkovec One, which was our largest camp at one point. It had almost 30,000 people, about 29,000 people, was completely overcrowded. We were quite concerned that we would have huge epidemics at any time. Now we have been able to get the numbers down to 18,000 and we've been able with the humanitarian evacuation program to move about 44,000 people to other countries, third countries in Europe, Canada, the U.S. This is helping us to improve daily living conditions for the refugees who are here already."

As a result, the UNHCR is now better prepared to cope with the expected influx when and if the Serbs decide to let the latest wave of Kosovars go. Ghedini says she hopes that will be soon.