Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 28 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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It has stopped raining, the mud has turned to dust, and, instead of bringing relief to the refugee camps, this has brought heat. Tensions flare all over. At Stenkovec-2, the second-largest of Macedonia's refugee camps, I get into a shoving match with an overeager security officer from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has been trying, with varying success, to keep people from entering the tent. Me, I just want information. But then, so does everyone else.

In existence for nearly a month, the camps have taken on patterns and a tempo of their own. Stenkovec-1, being the biggest, is most like a city. People move about in a constant quest that almost invariably ends in a queue or a crowd of people working their elbows or--more and more often, it seems--in a scuffle. Lines form for no reason--because there is a rumor of someone up ahead giving out blankets or food or the names off the next airlift list. If only someone knew for certain where the right place to go or who the right person to ask was--but how can anyone know for certain?

Some young refugee volunteers have set up an information tent at Stenkovec-1. The only problem is, they don't have enough information. After two days in operation they told me the most common question was where to get blankets: Some people, they say, have been here for two weeks and still haven't found the blankets. They send everyone to a particular tent--they've heard that's where blankets are distributed. Is that official information? No, they say, but that's what they've been told. Another common question is where to get a list of everyone in the camp to try to find relatives, but neither the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which registers camp newcomers, nor the Catholic Refugee Service, which operates this particular camp, will give the volunteers the lists. And then, they have an old man who has been kicked out of his tent by a family that considers it theirs. And then there are all these people who want to know how to get on an airlift.

I also want to know how people get on an airlift. At Stenkovec-2, I saw people filling out forms and got in behind them--but these turned out to be "Lost Child" forms. I was finally able to learn that most airlift processing is done through Stenkovec-1, so I headed there. Carolina Spannuth, a UNHCR protection officer, explains the system: Coming into the camp, refugees register with UNHCR and check off their country preferences on the back of the form; then UNHCR prioritizes the cases, placing the sick and vulnerable at the top and being careful not to separate families; then the International Organization for Migration books them on flights--sometimes directly, sometimes after the country in question approves the choice. The IOM tent is right near UNHCR's, and it is crowded with staff and with refugees who have found their way in. Like all tents in this camp, it is stuffy and it smells: Many of the refugees have not had a proper bath in a month, and, though people manage to wash their clothes in what can generously be called a creek, in a far corner of the camp, the cumulative body odor in this camp is overwhelming. The IOM works a dozen notebook computers in two shifts, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and they still have enough of a backlog of names to fill planes and planes. There are 12 flights today--five to France, two to Turkey, one each to Sweden, Holland, Norway, Finland, and the Czech Republic. Every evening, lists of names for the next day's flights go up, alongside waiting lists in case of no-shows--so there are no empty seats. Each flight goes out with 15 or so passengers more than its capacity would allow, because infants and toddlers can sit in their mothers' laps.

But what is a refugee to do in the endless weeks of not knowing whether he will ever get out of the camp? And what does the UNHCR understand about Albanian families, where a second cousin is a close relative? And what if the country options change, as they do constantly? And, most important, what is the guarantee that the piece of paper they fill out on arrival will not be lost or trampled in the mud before it can translate into a seat on the plane? This is why there is a crowd at the chain-link fence that surrounds the registration area. Dozens of people find a way in--tagging along with a journalist, or pretending to be one by speaking a foreign language. While I stand in-between the tents with Simona Opitz, IOM's public-information person, people come up to us, one by one, until another small crowd forms.

A short, squat man with gray stubble of a consistent length all over his head and his cheeks explains that he has been living in Germany for 30 years but his wife and seven children are just down the road, at Stenkovec-2. How is this possible? Well, he has had a job with Volkswagen for this long, but he wanted his children to grow up in Kosovo, so he built them a beautiful house and bought them a good life and came to visit three times a year. His oldest is 18 and his youngest is 4 months. How can he get them on an airlift to Germany? No way, says Simona. UNHCR's definition of keeping families together extends only to those who end up in the camps together: not to the family members who are abroad. This is an issue for the German government. The man says he knows: After he flew here, having worked overtime to get the money to do it, he went to the German Embassy--you have to get there at 4 a.m. to queue up, you know--but there are hundreds of people like him there. Simona confirms this: Family members are flying in from all over the world, she says, from the United States, Sweden, Germany--and it's always the same story, and nothing she or anyone here can do. The man says he was able to get his wife and the baby out of the camp for a day, to take them to the hospital--he feared the 4-month-old would develop pneumonia--but then he had to bring them back. "See, they were being lenient," Simona says to me, meaning the camp authorities, who have orders to let people out only if they have Macedonian relatives who have done the proper paperwork before coming to claim their relations. I have heard of a number of scams that people have invented to smuggle their friends and loved ones out of the camps, but none of these would work for a family.

A boy who can't be older than 19 comes up and tells a confused story to justify his desperation to get near a computer with the refugee database. First he claims he is a journalist, not a refugee, then finally says he is a refugee who got here later than his parents, who did not check off a country preference on the form, so he needs to do it or the family won't get out. Simona's credulity is tried, and she really shouldn't be doing this anyway, but she takes down the family's information.

"So where do you want to go?"

"Austria."

"Do you have relatives there?"

"No."

"I think Austria is taking only the people who have relatives. Where else?"

"Sweden, the UK."

"And?"

"I don't know. What do you suggest?"

This is when Simona finally loses her patience. I'm not sure whether it's being treated like a waitress who might help create a good meal or the absurdity of the very question that gets to her. "Who are you, anyway?" she says. "I shouldn't be doing this at all."

"OK," the boy responds. "Norway."

In the tent, an IOM coordinator checks the computer and tells her the country preferences were entered: Like everyone else, the boy just wanted to make sure his family was in the computer. "Stop doing this," the coordinator tells Simona. But everyone who leaves the tents seems to end up doing "this." Satko Mujagic, who fled Sarajevo for Holland six years ago and is now working for the Dutch immigration authorities here in the camp, takes down the names of people who claim to have relatives in Holland. "It's like a Schindler's List, that's how I think of it," he tells me. "They are not going to die here, but still ..." It seems arbitrary and unfair that he would help the people who happened to catch him by the chain-link fence, but then, what kind of man would he be if he refused?

He and I walk over to the spot where refugees board buses for the airlifts. There are tearful goodbyes, final medical checkups, more tearful goodbyes: These are relatives, friends, people who may have shared food, water, or shelter on the journey from Kosovo. Today's record number of flights is roughly equivalent to 15 buses, from two camps, and there are 16 coming from the border today just to Stenkovec-1. There is a rumor that, with no room in the tents, the new arrivals will be sleeping under tarps. There is also a rumor that a riot is brewing at Blace, the border crossing. In this dry heat, rumors can catch fire quickly. In any case, the only surprising thing about a riot at Blace would be that it would happen now rather than at the beginning of the month, when some relief workers actually persuaded the refugees to call off a demonstration that had the clear potential of turning into a riot. A journalist from the Sun and I agree to share a car to the border.

A bit later, when I find him to go to the border, he says, "No, Richard Gere is coming." The potential for riots exists every day, but Richard Gere comes only once. Sure enough, he pulls in, and is immediately set upon by dozens of journalists. He shakes the hand of an OXFAM representative and asks him for something--his vest, perhaps, because the guy hands over his vest. Richard Gere poses in it and gets back into the Jeep, which takes him to a far corner of the camp, with journalists running alongside it. "Who was that?" one of the Macedonian police reservists mobilized to guard the camps asks another. "I don't know," his friend responds. "Bill Clinton, I think."

There is a better chance Kosovars know who Richard Gere is: Virtually everyone in Pristina used to have a satellite dish for the TV, and pirate videos were always in abundant supply. But it doesn't take a celebrity to create a crowd in the camp, and one forms as soon as Gere is dropped off. Because this is just up the path from the Israeli youth group's playground, most of the curious are children. Gere drapes the OXFAM vest around one of them.

"Is there anything you can ask me for, that you need?" he asks.

A man pulls toward him through the crowd. "We are wondering how long we are going to have to stay here in the camp."

"I don't know," Gere smiles a Richard Gere smile. "I just got here myself, and I'm wondering how long I'm going to stay here."

I push my way out of the sweaty crowd and walk back. Just like a city, the camp instantly reverts to its routine self, as though nothing had happened. Kids are swimming and women washing clothes in the littered, stinking creek. People are lining up for food. Buses are unloading new arrivals, and I note that they are now getting food, water, and blankets right when they get off the bus. Behind me, my colleague from the Sun is interviewing a girl touched by Richard Gere.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

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