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Saturday, April 10, 1999 Published at 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK

Foot soldiers in the media war

Journalists witness harrowing scenes

By Kevin Bishop in Macedonia

It is a warm spring afternoon and Shumi is nodding gently off to sleep.

In fact we're all grabbing a welcome 40 winks in rare moment of calm between filming the harrowing scenes at refugee camps and busily filing the material back to London from our hotel.

Kosovo: Special Report
Unfortunately in this case, Shumi is our driver and we're doing 70kph or more on the way to the airport at the time.

Luckily Jon, our cameraman, jolts awake soon enough to spot his Shumi's drooping head and disaster is averted.

Shumi isn't his real name. But one of our translators has given him the nickname, short for Shumacher, due to the wild speeds at which he ferries us around Skopje.

Like so many drivers I've known, Shumi takes to the TV chauffeur business with gusto - carrying the tripod, shouting at obstructing officials, picking up gossip from the drivers' network.

[ image: Range of tactics needed for war-reporting]
Range of tactics needed for war-reporting
He is fuelled by constant nicotine intake and several gallons of coffee a day. He may well kill us all at breakneck speed one night, but we wouldn't be able to work without him.

The Hotel Aleksandar Palace in Skopje - someone has dubbed it the Ally Pally - is an atrium with a large lobby and bar on the ground floor.

Looking down over the balcony, I see groups of translators catching up on the latest news from Kosovo; camera crews lug silver boxes to-and-fro; correspondents and producers pace up and down, talking to base on their mobiles.

Fates unknown

The atmosphere is heavy with chat and smoke. And every day - sometimes three, four times a day - there are scenes of intense emotion as someone walks in from Kosovo.

The fate of so many of our friends and colleagues from Pristina is unknown. Some are rumoured to be in hiding, others are in the refugee queues that snake back from the border, others are simply missing somewhere.

An American TV crew bumped into their translator walking down the railway lines at Blace after he had been expelled from Pristina by train.

In the lobby, colleagues who had feared they would never see each other again hug tightly, wiping away the tears of joy.

Our Kosovo producer and translator Belma is one of the safe ones and is working with us here in Skopje now.

She escaped Pristina last week, but was separated from her parents on the journey. Kenny, our cameraman - more on him later - went to rescue her from the border.

[ image: Captured on camera: A young refugee]
Captured on camera: A young refugee
Hours of arguing and persuasion with the guards, letters and faxes from BBC London, eventually got her through.

Her parents were still missing at the weekend, but the mobile phone network traced them and now they too are safe in Skopje.

The cellular network in the Balkans is at saturation point these days as thousands of refugees exchange snippets of information about who's got out, who's still there.

Good news

Belma clutches tight to her yellow phone. It is literally her lifeline, as it is for so many of the refugees in this very modern European tragedy.

Another translator, Loric, has asked for tomorrow off. He's managed to get in touch with his girlfriend who is stuck on the Kosovo side of the border in a car with her parents.

He's going to try and get them across, but the Serbs may have closed the border.

And late tonight more good news. Yetta manages to get a call through. She has escaped from hiding in Pristina and is in Kukes, Albania.

[ image: Refugees have endured great hardship]
Refugees have endured great hardship
Despite the horror of the last two weeks, she is eager to join us here in Macedonia and work. You somehow don't think about the trauma, the tiredness - you just want to be part of it and among friends.

Kenny is the quiet Scotsman who shoots and edits for us, and writes mobile phone numbers on his hand.

He is a central part of the network that is gradually bringing the separated Kosovars that crucial commodity - news. He's also a dab hand at getting us the pictures that the Macedonians don't seem to want us to film.

Living hell

Although the refugees have now been moved on from Blace, for days here it was the scene of some of the most horrific conditions that Europeans have been forced to exist under for decades.

An open field next to a river and a railway line. No shelter, no regular food, no sanitation.

Human excrement is everywhere and the place is quite simply a living hell. The Macedonian police and soldiers do not want camera crews down there and they stop us on a hill overlooking the squalid camp.

Getting the pictures

Journalists have to be masters of not taking no for an answer, and Kenny is a Grand Master of the art.

Forsaking his large professional camera for a smaller, high-street model, he collars a passing Red Cross worker. In an instant he is disappearing into the mud, carrying one end of a stretcher.

While most crews fume and protest at the officials on the hill, Kenny is down there amongst the refugees, getting the pictures that we'll use on the evening news bulletins.

An hour or so later he emerges, covered in grime, sitting precariously on the back of a tractor with a dozen or so young men who'd been in to distribute bread.

"Inserting Agent Kenny" has become a daily ploy and the rest of us are mimicking him. Fergal, my colleague from Radio 5 Live, has been co-opted into the ranks of Save the Children for a day - sporting a nifty red and white bib to help him past the guards.

[ image: Remains of a regufee exodus]
Remains of a regufee exodus
A French photographer has been across into no-man's land to rescue a stranded colleague who has fled from Pristina.

Strapping cameras around his neck and pretending to engage him in lively French conversation, they cross safely into Macedonia.

Strong gang

At the end of the evening in the Ally Pally bar, the journalists swap stories and trade rumour. Shumi is still smoking and drinking coffee, waiting to take us home.

Belma is talking to another friend on the mobile, someone else who has made it out alive.

And Agent Kenny is downing a beer with the rest of us, the list of phone numbers now halfway up his arm.

The news team is only as strong as each individual member, and I think we've got a pretty strong gang this time. Tomorrow morning we'll all be up again at six and back out to the muddy field of refugees.

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