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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Frenzied Relocation of Refugees Is Under Way




SKOPJE, Macedonia -- With tens of thousands more refugees expected to flood into Macedonia in coming days, NATO forces worked nonstop Tuesday to erect tent cities so that ethnic Albanians driven from Kosovo could be moved out of a squalid border encampment.


A Western-organized refugee airlift got under way in earnest Tuesday, but was making only a small dent in the tide of 130,000 refugees who have arrived in this former Yugoslav republic in the past two weeks.


Macedonian and international aid officials stepped up efforts to move an estimated 65,000 refugees out of a fetid, teeming camp at Blace, in a no-man's land on the Macedonia-Kosovo frontier, to the relative comfort of several tent cities near the capital, Skopje.


Although no figures on the number of sick or dead were available, medical officers at Blace said primitive conditions were leading to an outbreak of diarrhea.


An open-pit latrine was constructed only Tuesday morning, more than a week after the makeshift encampment sprang up. Refugees have been relieving themselves in a muddy field that has become a foul-smelling open sewer.


Journalists were kept out of the camp itself, which was watched over by Macedonian police and army troops wearing gas masks. But sickened refugees could be seen being carried away on stretchers.


Ominously, at least 32 fresh graves had appeared in the surrounding hills.


"I don't think anyone exactly knows how many people have died. I spent about two hours the other day to try and find where the bodies were buried,'' said Sheri Fink, with the International Medical Corps. "It's been so busy and crowded that we haven't been able to keep track of the number of patients or write down their names. There are no statistics."


In one hilly area near Blace, new graves included one with the name of a well-known Pristina professor.


Worried about their country's political and ethnic stability, Macedonian authorities are trying to move out as many of the refugees as they can. With the influx from Blace and an estimated 30,000 other refugees trapped in a bottleneck at a second border crossing in southwestern Jazince, the number of refugees in Macedonia could exceed 200,000 by the end of the week.


A Western-organized airlift got under way Monday night with flights to Turkey and Norway, and continued Tuesday with 10 flights carrying another 3,500 refugees to Turkey and another four flights ferrying 600 people to Norway. But arrivals far outweighed departures.


The Ankara government asked that a railway link be established to transport an additional 3,500 refugees to Turkey, and plans were also being made to send about 20,000 refugees to neighboring Albania.


United Nations officials said they were investigating reports that many of the 1,138 refugees who headed for Turkey late Monday did not want to go, while some were forced to board some of the eight planes.


"We have had numerous reports of this and we are trying to find out if it is voluntary and if it was clarified to the refugees," said spokeswoman Paula Ghedini of the UN High Commission for Refugees.


NATO has stressed that while the goal is for the refugees to return to their homes in Kosovo, the alliance wants to take pressure off neighboring states by providing temporary homes elsewhere.


The alliance accuses Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic of deliberately trying to destabilize surrounding countries with a flood of refugees from Kosovo, where Yugoslav troops are accused of a systematic campaign of forced expulsions that has accelerated during the 2-week-old NATO bombing campaign.


NATO troops in Macedonia were working day and night to set up nine tent cities to temporarily house more than 100,000 refugees. At Stankovac, a suburb of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, NATO forces managed to erect 1,500 tents f mainly 10-person tents of military-issue green tarpaulin f in one night.


Food distribution, marked by desperate scrambles for bread in the early days of the crisis, had become relatively orderly by Tuesday. NATO said it had ferried more than 1,373 tons of aid into Macedonia, including 350 tons of food and water and 250 tons of tents and other supplies.


"We are doing our best to help alleviate the pain and suffering of the refugees,'' said Major Jan Joosten, NATO spokesman in Macedonia.


The alliance was setting up a water-purification plant at Stankovac, and the tent cities have army-style latrines and showers.


An Israeli medical team with a fully equipped field hospital and a team of 60 medical personnel also set up at Stankovac, where Macedonian officials have been ferrying Blace refugees by bus.


"The people of Israel, maybe our parents, know what it is to be a refugee in Europe about 50 years ago, so I think it is very symbolic that now we can come here and those who suffer now,'' said an Israeli military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Sharon Grinker.


The United States will temporarily house 20,000 Kosovo refugees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, American officials said Tuesday.


They said it would take several days before the refugees would begin being transported from the Balkans to the site in Cuba.


The United States had announced earlier that it would temporarily accept the refugees but did not indicate where they would be housed, although Guantanamo Bay was identified as a possible shelter.