Among the refugees: Notes from Macedonia

On the broad track of rock and dirt that runs through Cegrane, the largest refugee camp in Macedonia, a woman labors to push a wheelchair carrying a young boy with cerebral palsy. Nearby two young men join arms to form a human litter on which perches an old woman who is unable to walk. They are the vulnerable among the vulnerable. Illnesses and infirmities that made normal life difficult back in Kosovo add hardship to hardship under the stark conditions of the camp.

I spoke to a 16-year-old boy who watched with a look of stunned amazement as a steady stream of people passed by. He had arrived in Cegrane the day before from Pristina, Kosovo's capital, with his sick grandmother. Although he wanted to talk, he couldn't tear his attention away from the people moving about among the sea of tents. When I asked if he was OK, he nervously said, "There are so many people."

Every tent in every camp contains a particular story about how its occupants ended up in Macedonia, but the stories betray a pattern: Men wearing ski masks and brandishing weapons pound on doors and order inhabitants to leave immediately or be killed. Houses are looted and burned. Those fleeing are stripped of all valuables—cash, jewelry, cameras, cars, watches, identity papers—and forced on trains that take them to Kosovo's border with Macedonia. Often they are beaten; sometimes family members are shot.