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Sunday, May 2, 1999 Published at 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK

World: Europe

Of cabbages and satellite phones

Albania is struggling to accommodate thousands of refugees

By BBC Producer Kevin Bishop in Kukes

For the people of Kukes in northern Albania, the past month has seen their town transformed from a ramshackle border point to a thronging mass of muddy humanity.

Kosovo: Special Report
In a place like Northern Albania, you tend to strike deals that are surreal, but feel perfectly normal here.

In this case there was an obvious mutual need and we came to an arrangement - one cabbage equals one call to London.

The BBC here in Kukes live in a large house by the lake. There are a dozen or so of us and we occupy the top two floors. A family of refugees lives on the ground floor.

Our cameraman, Ian, was cooking one night last week and decided that after several weeks of pasta, we needed some roughage.

The refugee family downstairs had just taken delivery of a large sack of cabbages so Ian went down to talk business.

A few moments later he reappeared with a puzzled look on his face and a lady in a pink jumper carrying a cabbage peeping out behind him.

"She'll give us the cabbage but wants to call London."

Squalid camps

There is only a limited amount that we as journalists here can do to help the refugees in Kukes directly.

[ image: A telephone call can help ease a troubled mind]
A telephone call can help ease a troubled mind
Our four translators here are all from Kosovo and the money we pay allows them to move out of the squalid refugee camps into the relative security of an apartment in town.

Our other lifeline is the satellite telephone. There are six phone boxes in Kukes and each one has a queue - day and night - of 40 or 50 people.

For anyone who has been forced to flee their home, often at gunpoint, and then travel for several days not knowing what has happened to their family, one phone call can help ease a tormented mind.

Lavdia handed me the cabbage as I passed her the phone. She bit her nails anxiously as she listened to the ringing tone in London. Then came a smile that was worth a whole harvest of cabbages. "It's me," she shouted to her husband. "I'm fine. I'm alive."

Decaying concrete

If you can imagine a large muddy field surrounded by snow-capped mountains, dotted with grey-brown clumps of decaying concrete buildings, you have a good picture of Kukes.

It is the poorest corner of the poorest country in Europe and is not equipped to deal with a hundred thousand or more refugees.

Every newly-arrived journalist here stands out in the crowd due to lack of mud on their trousers and jaded look in their eyes.

Before too long the fresh-faced eagerness fades and lethargy and grime take control.

One colleague, a writer from an American paper, was sitting in one of the ad-hoc refugee camps last week, collecting her thoughts for a brief moment.

She looked up to see an Italian TV crew poised with outstretched microphone asking her where in Kosovo she came from and whether she was very hungry.

Happy to be alive

Among the grime and filth, amazing strength and humanity are prevailing. We met a woman washing her clothes in the muddy water of a stream infested with rats.

[ image: Children have picked up a little English]
Children have picked up a little English
She smiled when we asked her about her life back home, just across the mountains. She left behind a new washing machine and a large garden where the cherry trees were blossoming. But I'm alive she told us. Many aren't that lucky.

Filming in the drenching rain last week, we stopped to interview a man in a queue for milk powder. As we stood there a man appeared from nowhere with an umbrella to hold over our camera. When we finished he folded it up, said thank you and walked on his way.

But of all the images here, the one that I will remember the most from this place is the smiling face of young Hamid.

Since the arrival of a thousand or more foreign press and aid workers, the children who throng around the town have picked up a little English.

Two words, to be precise: "Allo" and "bye-bye". Everywhere you walk in town there is the constant echo of young voices merrily greeting you. "Allo" "Bye-Bye". It's like being a bit-part actor in a rather muddy episode of the Teletubbies.

Hamid is one of the kids. He is 12 and has lost both his parents in the war. He lives downstairs, adopted by the family of refugees.

Young guardian

Whenever he sees us his faces breaks out into the most beaming of smiles. Hamid has taken it upon himself to be the guardian of our satellite broadcasting position.

He and Tripod, the three-legged dog, are the two constant factors in our working day.

When we're not there he sweeps the grimy ground with a ragged broom. When we are there, he shoos away the other inquisitive children who are attracted by our cameras and lights.

Crossing the square this morning he smiles again as he sees me, then his face turns thunderous as he sees a dozen or so kids packed around the camera.

He screams and shouts at them, reasserting his authority over the rabble. He turns to me and smiles again with an exasperated shrug of the shoulders. "Children!" he tuts. "Allo".

At the weekend, two large teenagers took exception to Hamid's self-styled security guard role. They dragged him off behind a kiosk and began to kick and thump him.

He wasn't badly hurt, but his pride was dented. A policeman later stole his cap, the newly-acquired pride of his life. But still he smiled.

I decided to strike another deal. In my bag I found a cap embossed with the logo of my favourite football team.

In return for Hamid getting a new hat, the ranks of Queens Park Rangers supporters are now swelled by one small Kosovar refugee.

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