Kosovo Crisis Update
A systematic and ruthless campaign by Serb authorities to expel huge numbers of Kosovars in a series of special 'refugee trains' appeared to be underway Thursday.
In the last two days six special trains carried an estimated 25,000 Kosovars from their homes in the province capital of Pristina and other areas to the Macedonia border. The new arrivals said more trains apparently were en route.
The first train to arrive Wednesday carried several hundred people, but by Thursday the pace and sophistication of the operation had increased significantly. A second train arrived late Wednesday and then four more throughout the day Thursday - the last two carrying many thousands of persons each, packed "like sardines" into 30 passenger cars each.
The majority of the new arrivals were from Pristina, and people interviewed at the border told similar stories. In the last few days, they said, police had moved through the capital, house to house, firing into the air and ordering people to assembly in the Dragodan neighbourhood near the main railway line. By late Wednesday, thousands of people were crowded into a small area, awaiting trains.
As the engines arrived, apparently from Belgrade according to the Kosovars, people were packed into each carriage as tightly as possible. Soldiers shouted to the departing Kosovars that they were getting "a free ride to Macedonia" as a "gift from the government" in exchange for their houses and cars.
One refugee said an old man and one old woman had died while waiting for the train. Three babies were also born.
The departing civilians said Pristina by this time had been reduced to a ghost town.
The scene was very different at the Macedonian border. Each arriving train halted two kilometres from the border and people were forced to walk the remaining distance.
A huge crowd estimated to be many thousands strong, milled around in a field on the Macedonian side of the border amidst scenes of disarray. Some people were carried off on stretchers, but otherwise there was no immediate relief for many.
The government established three collective centres and planned to open at least three more, but these facilities were already full. UNHCR distributed blankets and mattresses to the centres and juice and bread to the early arrivals, but as additional trains arrived, welcome facilities were being overwhelmed.
The scene was almost as chaotic at the road border with an "endless" line of cars waiting to cross. Some arrivals said the line was at least 30 kilometres long, but this could not be independently verified.
Thus far more than 170,000 people have left or been forced from Kosovo in the last nine days to three main destinations, Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia.