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Balkans Special Report

  Give and Take On the Road to Somewhere

By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 1999; Page C01

BLACE, Macedonia, April 5 It's spring in Macedonia, time to plant. A 34-year-old man named Baki Bardhi is on his tractor. The rain has stopped; the sun is up. A good day to be a farmer, this Monday. But Bardhi is heading past his fields, out of the village of Blace and down a steep hillside toward the Macedonia-Kosovo border.

The refugees can't be seen, not yet. First come the colors of this part of Macedonia: the pastel greens of the trees, the white blossoms on the flowering plums, the browns of the mountainsides. There is a steady wind, and the pleasant scent it carries is of the Epenec River, swollen by the melting snows. But as Bardhi gets closer, the smell changes. It becomes the smell of humans who have nowhere to bathe, nowhere to go to the bathroom, no clothes other than those they have been wearing for almost a week. The colors change, too. The browns become faces and mud. The greens become the uniforms of armed soldiers. The white becomes the masks the soldiers are wearing over their mouths and noses.

There are estimated to be 70,000 refugees of Kosovo here, maybe more, corralled between the border to the north, the river to the west, the armed soldiers to the south, and, to the east, a road lined with buses that at some point will carry them somewhere else. Somewhere else is where the refugee camps are being built, where the transport planes wait at the airport, where plans are being drawn up by relief agencies and governments. Somewhere else, in other words, is not here, where the refugees are stuck in a valley of mud. The numbers keep growing. The conditions keep worsening. The day's rumor is typhus. Or perhaps it's only dysentery. Or maybe it's exhaustion, but every few minutes brings another mud-caked refugee on a mud-caked stretcher out of the masses to a makeshift hospital on the far side of the road.

"A catastrophe," Baki Bardhi says, watching. No one has anything to drink. No one has anything to eat.

So Baki Bardhi has come to help feed them.

Like the refugees, he is Albanian. Unlike them, he settled in Macedonia rather than Kosovo, so they are in the mud, and he is on a tractor. The tractor was manufactured in Yugoslavia, back before Yugoslavia became so many splinters of mayhem. History has been kinder to the tractor than Yugoslavia. It runs fine, easily pulling a cart that has a wooden floor and four low sides. He drives to a patch of dirt where there are stacks of donated supplies. Into the cart go hundreds of loaves of bread, hundreds of bottles of water, hundreds of cartons of milk, hundreds of packages of biscuits. Six men climb aboard, and off goes Bardhi, toward the crowd.

Directions telling him what to do are nonexistent. He pauses on a hill just above the crowd. "Go to the right," a volunteer tells him, so he goes to the right, down the hill, toward the thick heart of the crowd.

There is a path. He follows it. The tractor tires sink. Rain isn't the only liquid that makes mud. "A cesspool," one of the relief workers, with a mask over his mouth and latex gloves on both hands, called this place before Bardhi went driving into it. He guns the engine to get traction. Mud flies.

He keeps going. People line both sides of the path. They have been sleeping under sheets of plastic, which are draped across tree branches. They have been awake for hours. It is almost noon. They watch as the cart of bread and milk and water and biscuits slides and bounces past them, mere inches from their reach. No one makes a move.

But now one person does. He rests a hand on the rail of the cart and runs along next to it, and now another person does the same thing. And now someone reaches in, and now several people do, and one of the six men who climbed into the cart to help pass out the food picks up a bottle of water and uses it to hit the hands away. And now people are starting to hem the tractor in, and Bardhi begins honking the horn.

He wants to go farther. He wants to go to the far reaches of the camp. But he is surrounded now and can go nowhere without running people over. In every direction, people are running toward him, slipping in the mud, getting back up, pushing against the people in front of them, who push against the people in front of them, all the way up to the cart. One of the volunteers picks up a loaf of bread and tosses it blindly. There is no chance it will hit the ground. There are too many people watching its flight, packed too tightly. Out goes another loaf, and another, and hundreds of arms suddenly stretch skyward, fingers extended and waving. Out goes more bread. Out go bottles of water. Out go cartons of milk. "Milk for my child," a woman calls out. Now someone tries to climb into the cart, and once he does other people try, and now people seem to be everywhere at once, trying to climb into the cart, onto the tractor, onto the tires, working their way toward the food however they can. They are slipping. They are falling against one another. They are screaming. They are pushing. A week earlier they were in their own homes, and now they are so desperate for food that the people bringing it are swinging bottles of water at them to try to bring them under control.

But they can't bring them under control.

"For children. For children," a woman is shouting, arms out, trying to reach the cart. She is wearing earrings, a headband and a sweater, and when she can't reach the cart she brings her hands to her head and covers her ears because behind her is her daughter, perhaps 8, holding on to her, getting crushed, screaming.

And behind her is another girl, 10 perhaps, wearing a pink jacket decorated with drawings of cats and stars and flowers and, now, mud. She has red hair. There is mud in her hair, too. She slips through a small seam and gets closer and closer to the cart. Now only one person separates her from the cart, a boy, maybe 12, who already has one loaf of bread tucked into his sweater and is reaching for another when one of the men on the cart sees him. Down comes a water bottle onto his hand, and away goes the boy, and in comes the girl. She reaches in. No one stops her. She feels around.

Too late. Almost everything is gone.

The milk is gone. The last bottle of water, the one used to hit the boy, goes out end over end, and with that, the water is gone. The bread is gone, except for two loaves, and now there they go, tossed high, up and up toward the blue sky, and then they drop into waiting hands, and then come their crumbs, trailing in the wind.

There's nothing left, except crushed biscuits coating the floor of the cart. They are nothing but crumbs. They have been stepped on. They are mixed in with pieces of mud.

Doesn't matter. The people keep coming, trying to climb into the cart, trying to scoop them up. The volunteers scream to the crowd that there's nothing more, but the people won't back away, and now one of the volunteers uses his feet to try to kick them away, and now Bardhi, not knowing what else to do, puts the tractor in gear and begins moving forward.

One more person tries to jump in but slips on the biscuit crumbs. The volunteers grab him, hoist and toss him. The tractor inches forward. The crowd backs away. The volunteers keep yelling they'll be back, but they are so hoarse from hollering that they can't be heard over the diesel engine. Still, they yell, and up the path Bardhi goes, on a path with the worst mud of all. The progress is slow. The smell is terrible. The people watching the tractor pass by them are covering their mouths and noses with their hands, their scarves, their hats, their sleeves. They are hungry. They are thirsty. There are thousands of them. There seems to be no end to them. Some of them are crying. They watch the tractor coming toward them. And now they watch it come to a stop.

Bardhi looks at them.

He is stuck. The mud, their mud, is too thick.

Here they come, surging.

There is nothing Bardhi can do except gun the engine and spin the tires. Mud flies. Why would they care, though? They're already covered with mud. They reach out. They put their hands on the tractor. They put their hands on the cart.

And then, all at once, they push, and just like that Bardhi is out of the mud, past the crowd and on his way back up the hill -- where, he is happy to see, more tractors are lined up to come in.

Staff writer David Finkel will be filing regular diary reports from the border areas around Kosovo, where hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians have fled to escape the brutal violence in their homeland. Finkel will chronicle the lives of the refugees and the international campaign to aid them.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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