Early Wednesday morning, 200 or so weary Kosovar refugees remained under the canopy at the Macedonian border checkpoint. They were the last of 22,000 who had crossed in the previous three days. Some had been waiting outside for more than 24 hours.
Relief workers at the Blace border crossing breathed a sigh of relief.
Before heading back to Skopje, Ron Redmond, a field officer with the United Nations refugee agency, decided to make a final check of the road between the Kosovo and Macedonian borders. Called "no-man's land," the half-mile stretch resembles the entry road to a prison. Two lanes wide and lined by tall barbed-wire fences, no-man's land is the final stop for refugees before they cross into Macedonia.
The road jogs right, putting the Kosovo border and the farthest section of no-man's land out of view from Blace, in Macedonia. The most recent refugees are often held there, out of sight from journalists and relief workers on the Macedonian side, and just a few feet from Yugoslav police. With often spotty communications between Macedonian border officials and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the only way for relief workers to find out if refugees are waiting in no-man's land is to go look.
Redmond set out with a half dozen colleagues, including an official from the British embassy in Skopje. Journalists aren't usually allowed to visit no-man's land, but I tagged along. Refugees who had crossed earlier told of thousands more behind them. We walked in silence for several minutes, not knowing what to expect on the other side.
And suddenly, there they were. As we rounded the corner, the scene before us was as familiar as it was alarming. About 1,500 Kosovar Albanians were huddled together on the asphalt, so tightly packed together it was difficult to distinguish where one family ended and the next began.
A dozen Macedonian border police stood over the refugees, ensuring the crowd remained still in its position near the Kosovo border. As Redmond and the other relief workers approached the group, the enormous, indistinguishable mass splintered into a thousand different lives. Many had arrived sick or battered. All were hungry and exhausted.
Small emergencies popped up one after another. One man pushed through the crowd and rushed forward, explaining that his anemic son urgently needed medical attention. Several women had given birth in the previous 48 hours. A young girl had had an epileptic seizure. And those with diarrhea had to continue waiting; there are no toilets in no-man's land.
Relief workers scrambled to meet the refugees' needs. A Macedonian Red Cross nurse and doctors treated the most ill, but they were stretched thin. The medical workers had been on duty for two days straight, treating the previous wave of refugees.
A team of young men wearing vests emblazoned with "Action Against Hunger" handed out bottles of water and boxes of crackers. Minutes later they brought out diapers, baby food and wool blankets.
In a scene that, under different circumstances, would have been reminiscent of a weekend outing, one family of eight sat together on a wool blanket. But instead of a grassy park underfoot, their blanket lay on wet asphalt. Behind them, coils of barbed wire were illuminated by floodlights. They had arrived at the border the day before, they said, and Serbian police at the last stop, in the village of General Jankovic, had held them on the train for 10 hours.
A man standing nearby said his neighborhood in Pristina had been completely emptied of ethnic Albanians. He had traveled to the border with another family, which included friends of his children, and hoped to be reunited with his wife, children and mother-in-law, all of whom were living in the Cigrane refugee camp. He had spent the previous two nights holed up in an empty house in General Jankovic. He also said one woman and a young child weren't as fortunate -- they had died on the overcrowded train.
The refugees wore expressions of patience, and quiet resignation. They had made it, for the most part. As mothers breast-fed, and small children struggled to stay awake, they continued to wait for the Macedonian border officials to take down their names before they were ushered into tents in the Blace transit camp near the border. Mercifully, the authorities processed the newcomers quickly. Within a couple of hours of Redmond's arrival, the initial 1,500 were moved past the Macedonian border.
In the empty road where they had been, the detritus of 1,500 beleaguered lives lay scattered about: dozens of empty plastic water bottles; stray clothes that had been dropped and forgotten; packs of cigarettes crushed under 1,500 pairs of feet. But minutes later, as soon as that initial group had filed through, 1,000 more Kosovars poured in, a hundred at a time. A column of refugees could be seen stretching back into the darkness beyond the border checkpoint, as far back into Kosovo as could be seen from no-man's land.
And it all started again.