Of all the emotions that have swept across the muddy plain of the refugee camps here since the first ethnic Albanians trudged through the mountain passes in March, the unlikeliest may be the hollow feeling that blew in on a chill wind today as the camp known as Stenkovic I officially closed.
"Lonely," said Papa Diop, a project manager for Catholic Relief Services, the aid agency that ran the camp for the United Nations, back when 30,000 people called it home. "We've been here three or four weeks and it's still very lonely."
"They started leaving when we arrived," said assistant camp manager Oliver Jakuloski, another relative newcomer.
"We didn't take it personally," Diop said, and smiled.
When Stenkovic was steadily swelling with bereft families arriving on swollen feet or overcrowded farm wagons, it grew into a signature image of the Kosovo crisis. Albania had more refugees, but ethnic Albanians were welcome in their homeland.
In Macedonia, a new country balancing a mix of nationalities, the tens of thousands of Kosovo refugees were not allowed to disperse. They were herded first onto this airfield beside the main road. Police posted guards. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees pitched tents. And when the plain filled, a second camp was set up a few hundred yards away, a camp that crept up the foothills toward the border: Stenkovic II.
But I remained the main event.
"It was . . . not theater, but an enormous performance of media," said Carmen Reinholz of the German Red Cross, which was boxing up the last of its medical gear this morning. Forklifts hoisted strong black boxes trimmed in steel. Nurses swept off stretchers beside a set of shelves, hand-lettered in red, "Vein Catheter" and "Chest Drainage."
"The whole hospital is in there [in the black boxes] for the next disaster, somewhere in the world," Reinholz said. But there may never be another disaster that gets as much attention as this one.
"It had never happened before," she said. "All forms of celebrity came to this camp: Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan," the U.N. secretary general. Reinholz pointed to a field of heavy gravel 100 yards away, the helipad where British Prime Minister Tony Blair set down.
She said, "They would certainly not show up in Sierra Leone," where a peace accord was signed this week ending a brutal eight-year war.
The last of the refugees were moved out a week ago, bused either to smaller camps in Macedonia or back to Kosovo. Some carried along the gray tents to serve as their homes while they rebuild houses shelled or burned by the Serbian forces that forced them out.
In their wake, the field that once held a small, teeming city -- divided by streets and drainage gutters, the tents numbered like real houses -- looked like the National Mall on the morning of July 5.
On the near side of a barbed wire fence, a bulldozer stirred up old, heavy smells. Beyond it lay a Balkan meadow as it should be in high summer: thistles, wildflowers and freshly baled hay. Beyond that were the last neat lines of refugee tents.
Stenkovic II, pop. 3,800 and fading fast.
By midweek, the last of the refugees will be gone, said Robert Allen, who runs the camp for CARE. Stenkovic II will then be renovated. "Upgrade is the word," he said. "Go from a four-star to a five-star." Tents will be spread out and space added to ensure the next wave of refugees the 4.2 square yards of space per refugee preferred by the U.N. refugee agency, rather than the 1.2 square yards the ethnic Albanians made do with.
The new arrivals "most likely will be of a different ethnic group than the refugees already here," Allen said, putting it diplomatically. Gypsies are the U.N. agency's latest problem population, left behind by the Serbs who deserted Kosovo and despised by ethnic Albanians who say they helped Serbs burn and loot their homes.
"It's the ending of all this," said Skender Krasniqi, an ethnic Albanian waiting out the drizzle under a plastic awning. "We have two ways now, either go to America or they will make us go back."
To Kosovo, he means. Most of those remaining have been back, seen their houses in ashes, and returned. They idle in their tents or mill in common areas and talk about the good old days of the Stenkovic camps.
There is real nostalgia for the days when their camp was crowded with 23,000 people, down the road from a camp with 30,000.
New arrivals showed up every day with news from Kosovo, or with relatives feared dead. In the mud streets, the sound of children playing was so loud you sometimes had to shout.
"It was good," Krasniqi said. "They took very good care of us."
CAPTION: A refugee carries a mattress as he leaves Stenkovic I for Kosovo. Some refugees feel nostalgic about the camp. Said one: "They took very good care of us."