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Saturday, May 1, 1999 Published at 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK


Macedonia's refugee underground

Refugees arriving at Likova's mosque

By Rageh Omaar in Macedonia

The trip was intended to be a standard, almost routine guided tour, a day trip if you like, to briefly gaze on the misery of fellow human beings - people exactly like you and me but whose entire lives ended within the space of 10 minutes when a soldier, or hooded paramilitary knocked on their door and told them to leave.

They lost their world and their lives at an instant and they are now described as refugees.

A UN aid official telephoned, and she spoke with something approaching a sense of excitement.

"There are reports that many ethnic-Albanian refugees from Kosovo, possibly several hundred, are stuck in no-man's land, " she said. "And the Macedonian authorities are not allowing them to come across the unofficial border crossing point."

A refugee tour


[ image: Being led along mountain tracks to safety]
Being led along mountain tracks to safety
Our group of journalists assembled with our cars and equipment and waited for our refugee tour. There is an inescapable sense of uneasiness attached to such things. A confused tangle of guilt, depression, and feeling morally unclean, for want of a better expression.

But nevertheless, our big, bright cars sped off in a bizarre convoy - with a white UN jeep at the front like some shepherd herding his flock.

We arrived at the small farming village of Likova, at the bottom of a steep valley near the border with Kosovo.

You could tell the two-room mosque at the centre of Likova was packed full even before you entered it. Hundreds of old, battered shoes thick with mud lay scattered on the steps outside. The mosque was home to newly-arrived refugees from Kosovo.

Smuggling them in


[ image: Muddy shoes on the steps of the mosque]
Muddy shoes on the steps of the mosque
As the large throng of journalists and villagers waited outside the mosque, two young men approached my BBC colleague, Belma Bajrami.

"Men from our village have brought the refugees in across the border. We've smuggled them in using secret tracks through the mountains that the Macedonian police don't know about. Come, we'll take you."

Belma dragged myself and BBC cameraman Nigel Bateson, away.

Kosovo: Special Report
We set off un-noticed round the back of the village and began the ascent up the mountain tracks.

Mud was everywhere and it was hard to keep your footing. At first we walked. Then we waited for the tractors that came from the village and were going to smuggle in the refugees from the mountainside.

We bumped our way along a desolate and beautiful landscape. It was almost primeval. The mud, the fog and mist and the thick, moist forests.

The secret tracks are now part of a growing underground movement. Around 180,000 refugees from Kosovo have entered Macedonia, the equivalent of 10% of its population.

Hard to cope


[ image: Refugees are guided along mountain trails]
Refugees are guided along mountain trails
This impoverished country, already fearful for its own survival and trying to maintain a peaceful and stable ethnic balance between its Macedonian and Albanian populations, cannot cope.

Their fear is that more and more refugees are coming into the country through unofficial crossing points, and instead of going to refugee camps, they are settling into Albanian villages like Likova.

The UN says that nearly 90,000 refugees are living with Albanian host families in Macedonia. The villagers told us they had no option but to smuggle their kith and kin out of Kosovo.

"We are one people and one family," they said. "And after everything that has happened to them, how can we leave their care to foreigners? The links between us are so close that many of the refugees are our relatives as well."


[ image: Refugees are arriving in small Albanian villages]
Refugees are arriving in small Albanian villages
As we spoke, the human cargo emerged from the mist.

There were around 70 people, but amongst them were many children.

They swept down from a ridge above us. They'd been walking from place to place for two days and many of them had been in hiding from Serb forces for a month. In the midst of their exhaustion there was also elation at having made it through.

But the ordeal had taken its toll on some of the children. One man holding a small bundle came almost running down the ridge and headed towards us - he pulled back the cloth and underneath lay one-year-old Besart Sallahu.

His face was white and he lay unconscious and drained of all energy. His father feared he wouldn't make it on the last stretch of the journey to Likova.

They rested for a while and then climbed onto the tractors which had to be driven down the mountainside without headlights so as not to attract the attention of the police.

We arrived in Likova at nightfall. The villagers had prepared food and a warm room for them. They had finally reached sanctuary.

We tried to find young Besart amongst the children but could see no sign of the desperately-ill boy.

Then we saw his mother, Rafida. She was holding a child - but it didn't seem to be Besart. This child was bouncing around, playing and eating.

But when we looked closer, it was Besart. Just a little warmth and some food had given him a new lease of life. Stories like his is the reason why the smugglers of Likova say they won't stop.



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