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  •   Searching for the Promise of No Man's Land

    Refugees pass a Macedonian policeman
    Refugees pass a Macedonian policeman as they leave the border to a temporary refugee camp. (Lucian Perkins — The Washington Post)
    By David Finkel
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, May 25, 1999; Page A11

    NO MAN'S LAND, May 24 There it is. The line. The border of Kosovo. A single step away.

    On that side of the line: a border gate. Serbian territory. A trail of fleeing, exhausted and frightened ethnic Albanian refugees said to be more than a mile long.

    Several hundred yards away, another line, Macedonia's. The place more than 20,000 refugees have crossed into since Saturday.

    And in between the two lines: A theoretically neutral, palpably tense strip of pavement known as No Man's Land, where, at the moment, thousands of refugees are moving toward Macedonia under the watchful eyes of both Serbian and Macedonian police, inch by nervous inch.

    What is going on inside Kosovo that has precipitated this latest massive influx of refugees? Why, after a week of relatively few border crossings, did 7,700 refugees arrive at the border on Saturday? Followed by up to 5,000 Sunday? Followed by what aid workers are estimating could be as many as 10,000 today?

    As with so much of what goes on inside Kosovo, no one outside knows for sure.

    At the border, aid workers wonder if they're seeing the final, frantic push of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's campaign. But they don't know, and neither do the refugees who have made it across the border so far, all of whom tell variations of the same story: that during the past few weeks, they were robbed by Yugoslav army and Serbian police of cash and jewelry, that their homes were stripped of refrigerators and washing machines and television sets and dishes and furniture, that their houses were burned, that their cars and tractors were stolen, that they lived for weeks in the mountains, that they slept on plastic sheeting, that food was scarce, that they were fortunate to make it to train stations in Pristina or Urosevac, that the train they rode to the Macedonian border was packed, and that they left behind thousands more waiting for whatever train might be next.

    Every once in a while, the aid workers venture into No Man's Land to get a sense of the number of refugees headed their way. From a distance, it can be hard to tell.

    But go past the gate, and this is what you see:

    First a checkpoint, one of three manned by Macedonian police. For the people crossing into Macedonia, this is the last checkpoint, and the several dozen people here at the moment are silent, sitting and intently watching the Macedonian policeman who is casually watching them, awaiting whatever signal he might give them to stand and walk the last 50 yards into the agonizingly slow registration process that will give them their freedom.

    Perhaps 200 yards farther along is the second checkpoint, and, approaching from Macedonia, this is where the sense of chaos truly begins. Because right now hundreds of refugees, formed in not so much of a line as a wall, are being ordered by several Macedonian policemen,who are not only screaming at them but swinging their walkie-talkies, to get the ones in front to sit down and act as a barricade to hold the others back. "Down!" the policemen scream, "DOWN!" And instead of questioning why they have to sit in the middle of a road, that's what the refugees do.

    And then, past them, stretching to the Kosovo border: the thousands. They are everywhere. Moving forward. Stopping. Moving forward. Stopping. Being crushed tighter together by more and more refugees in back in what appears to be an endless stream. They come holding the hands of children. They come holding the hands of elderly mothers. They come with crying babies in their arms, and crying children on their shoulders, and cigarettes in their mouths, and old suitcases with tape and broken zippers, and shoes that in every case give them away for what they are. Because all of the shoes, whether the sneakers of children or the slippers of old women, are covered with mud.

    One step away from the border, Ismet Berisha, 31, of Pristina, stops to talk. He says the worst moments came a few days ago, when Serbian soldiers invaded his house and took his children out to their car and said if he wanted them back he would have to pay several thousand dollars. "They were screaming," he says of his children, so he gave the Serbs all the money he had, and borrowed more from neighbors, and got his children back, and came with them on the train, and stood in line with them for seven hours to make it into No Man's Land. "Happiness," he says of how he is feeling.

    Ekrem Shaqza, 27, also of Pristina, stops for a moment as well. He says he was beaten by police, and that "my mother and father are probably killed," and that now that he is in No Man's Land, "I feel better," and then says he is too scared to say anything more.

    And Islam Mucaj, here with his wife and daughter, looking not so much happy as lost, says, "We're just in the middle of a street, and we don't know where we're going."

    And a woman whose first name is Mevlude, who starts to talk, and then stops, and then begins to cry, as do her two daughters, who are looking past her with horror. Because standing next to her, all of a sudden, are two Serbian policemen.

    She and her daughters hurry off in one direction, and the reporter and translator she was talking to move in another, and the Serbian policemen follow the others. Who begin moving away from the Serbian border, toward Macedonia.

    As do the Serbian policemen.

    Who begin elbowing their way through the throngs of refugees.

    As do the Serbian policemen.

    Who walk faster and faster, as do the Serbian policemen, who stay two steps behind, all the way to the line that marks the end of No Man's Land.

    Where on one side is Macedonia. And on the other side are two retreating Serbian policemen and thousands of people waiting to get into No Man's Land and waiting to leave No Man's Land behind.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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