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Sunday, April 11, 1999 Published at 12:12 GMT 13:12 UK

Friends whose lives were shattered

Thousands have made their way into neighbouring countries

By Special Correspondent Ben Brown

This week some of my friends became refugees, part of the extraordinary exodus from Kosovo.

I've reported on refugees before - the Kurds who fled from Iraq, the teeming masses on the run from Rwanda and Burundi - but this time it was different.

Kosovo: Special Report
This time they were not just anonymous faces that looked up at me. There were people I'd last met in the buzzing cafes and restaurants of Pristina. Students, journalists, professionals, intellectuals, sipping cappuccinos, drinking red wine.

Now, here they were, shivering in the cold, frightened and famished. They had not eaten for days. They had lost everything - their houses, their homeland, and for now, at least, their hope.

A life destroyed

For the last year I've been in and out of Kosovo covering the conflict there, and no-one's looked after me better than a bubbly lady - the cook and cleaner in the house where we used to stay.

[ image: Refugees forced to sleep in the open]
Refugees forced to sleep in the open
The last time I'd seen her, she'd been making me her usual greasy omelette for breakfast, chiding me because I didn't want to eat it all.

Today, she is a woman shattered - mentally and spiritually broken.

I met her again in Macedonia after she had escaped with her family, but like so many, they got split up in the frenzied chaos.

She is with one of her sons, but she cannot find the other, nor her husband, and she cannot stop sobbing. No words I said seemed to comfort her.

Many of the refugees were simply dumped in Macedonia after the Serbs had forced them onto trains.

When I saw the first line of them trudging down the railway tracks across the border, it was surreal, as if I were on the set of some epic film about the holocaust.

Schoolgirl's despair

In Blace refugee camp, no more than a muddy field really, my eyes settled upon a schoolgirl in her early teens perhaps. Her hysterical crying pierced the damp and chilly air.

[ image: Many have lost relatives]
Many have lost relatives
I didn't dare ask her the horrors she had been through, but I had been reading recently about the life of Anne Frank, and this schoolgirl somehow reminded me of her - an innocent, beautiful young life turned upside-down, inside out, and snapped apart.

All the refugees I spoke to gave me the same account of that day, the day they had been driven out. The Serbs had come in masks and carried machine guns. They banged on doors, telling Albanians to leave, giving them five, maybe 10 minutes if they were lucky, to get down to the railway station.

We're handing you free tickets to Macedonia, the Serbs would say, in exchange for your homes and your possessions.

It all rang true. I myself had had a taste of Serbian terror before I was expelled from Kosovo. It was the first night of the air strikes in my hotel in Pristina. Suddenly the lights went out. The security police rolled up in their sleek and silent black Mercedes.

I watched from the window, hoping they would drive past. They didn't. Instead they came in and started prowling around the pitch-black corridors, hunting for Western journalists from Nato countries.

I lay on my bed sweating until my clothes were wet. Never have I felt so utterly terrified - not of the cruise missiles landing near enough to shake my hotel windows, but of that knock on the door.

Sure enough it came. Ludicrously I looked around for a hiding place - the bathroom perhaps, under the bed, but when I failed to answer the door, instead of kicking it down, the goons outside consulted some list and moved on.

I wondered if they would return, then drifted off into a sleep that anaesthetised my fear.

Expelled from Pristina

The next day the Serbs kicked us out anyway. We drove to Macedonia in a convoy of armoured cars and we were safe. But three of my Albanian friends were not.

[ image: Traumatised and hungry]
Traumatised and hungry
They had decided to stay, to be with their families. As the Serbian terror was unleashed around them, they hunkered down in their homes, never daring to go out. We made frantic phone calls every day to check how they were.

There was anguish, there was guilt, maybe I should have made them leave with us. Eventually the first friend called to say she was going to make a run for it to join us in Macedonia. Her nightmare, though, had just began.

Four days she spent at the border, waiting to be allowed to cross; days when she didn't eat or sleep, days when the Serbs still swarmed around her, threatening, demanding money.

The calls from her mobile phone were increasingly desperate. It sounded like she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Then, finally, miraculously, she got in.

That left two more friends still in Kosovo, still in danger. One them we spoke to every day. Suddenly, though, no answer. Her phone in Pristina was just ringing out. A humdrum sound, it was, at the same time, sinister and menacing.

My mind was running wild - she'd been taken away, tortured, executed. In fact, she'd moved to another flat, and then made a dash for the border too. At last, after days without contact, came her voice again - a phone call to say she had arrived in Albania.

Two friends out now, and one to go. He is still there, the last I heard, inside that tortured province, and I am praying that whatever happens in this war, he will get out, because in the end, I'd rather my friends are refugees and alive, than still in their country and dead.

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