More than 13,000 Kosovar Albanians streamed into Macedonia at the Blace crossing over the weekend, the largest influx since the early days of NATO bombings. Their arrival alarmed aid groups here, who fear it could portend a renewed humanitarian disaster. At a time when military analysts are saying a ground invasion must begin in the next three weeks, or else NATO must face waging war - and housing refugees - through the Balkan winter, the renewed refugee exodus is taxing the humanitarian operation to its limits.
Relief officials say these latest arrivals are some of the most traumatized they have yet seen. They told tales of more than 100 people killed in the village of Grastica, near the Kosovo capital Pristina, and of weeks spent in tractors trying to find a safe route out of Kosovo. "We're seeing a lot more emotional trauma. Just about every family has a horrible story to tell," said Ron Redmond, the spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Macedonia, in an interview Sunday. "But we keep hearing about Grastica."
Redmond says the UNHCR began hearing consistent stories about atrocities and intimidation in Grastica from refugees arriving in Macedonia from Kosovo on Friday, and every day since then. He says that a large convoy of tractors and trailers carrying Kosovo Albanians displaced by Serb forces was making its way south from the northeastern Kosovo city of Podujevo. As the convoy approached the village of Grastica, gangs of Serb paramilitary thugs robbed and pillaged the refugee convoys as they came through.
Refugees told UNHCR that paramilitaries threatened to kill children if they didn't hand over money. One man told refugee officials he saw a 10-year old boy killed in front of his parents. Most were threatened and robbed, but not killed.
"One man said he was on a trailer, and the paramilitaries put a knife to his granddaughter's throat. The girl is about 3 years old; she came through with him yesterday. The paramilitaries told this man they will kill this little girl if he doesn't hand over Deutschmarks. They didn't kill her, but she is obviously still terrified."
While Redmond says the UNHCR, which has not had staff in Kosovo since NATO launched airstrikes two months ago, cannot independently verify the stories, so many refugees have told similar tales that a consistent picture of systematic atrocities being committed in Grastica is becoming clear.
The newly arrived refugees place the killings around a month ago. They have been trying to flee Kosovo since then, making their way to Pristina and the south-central Kosovo city of Urosevac where they were finally able to board trains and flee to Macedonia on the weekend. After weeks of preventing Kosovars from leaving Serbia if they don't have guarantee letters from relatives in Macedonia, the Serb authorities unexpectedly opened the floodgates Saturday, letting buses and trains packed with thousands of refugees cross into Macedonia, including 7,000 Saturday and another 6,000 Sunday.
The latest influx brings to around 238,000 the number of Kosovar refugees in Macedonia, and has outstripped the capacity of refugee camps here.
"We're getting back to a spot where we were two to three weeks ago in terms of crowding in the [refugee] camps," said Paul Stromberg, of the UNHCR in Geneva, in a phone interview Sunday. "Yesterday we had about 6,500 places in camps in Macedonia, and we used most of it." On Sunday aid officials at the border counted another 6,000 arrivals.
While Stromberg says there is space for tents that could hold another 8,000 people, "It's tougher to put together infrastructure in the camps, especially water and sanitation."
Water shortages are especially acute in Albania, says John Fawcett, a humanitarian aid worker with the International Rescue Committee, now in Tirana, Albania.
"It's turning into a public health disaster," Fawcett said by telephone Sunday. "The real problem is lack of water. They just keep building more tents. But that is not the solution to this humanitarian problem. It is just not possible to build water and sanitation infrastructure to manage a million refugees, which is what they're talking about."
"The only solution," Fawcett adds, "is to return people to Kosovo, through the use of NATO ground troops. Or to resettle them abroad."