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In five days, a home for 2,000

Story by SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN Times Senior Correspondent

Photos by JAMIE FRANCIS of the Times staff

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 1999


Arriving: The first bus pulls into Cegrane about 11:15 Wednesday night, but the refugees must wait until a load of blankets arrives. It is after midnight when the first family is led to a tent.

They peer into one of the British tents and pronounce it "great." Then they look into one of the U.S. tents, with its overhang and zippered screen door, and decide they like that better

Suade has more than a passing interest in the accommodations. Although she is a permanent resident of Cegrane, her sister, a teacher, lives in Kosovo with her husband and two children. There has been no word from them in days, and Suade wonders if they might be on their way to this very refugee camp.

The German soldiers are still busily erecting tents -- they now have more than 350 up -- and Pelagonia is grading the dirt road on the north side of the camp. The land ownership question has yet to be answered, but the Macedonian government has given the go-ahead to use the area for the food distribution tents. If it turns out to be private property, the owners will be compensated later.

Overall, though, the camp remains very much a work in progress. Installation of the water system continues to go slowly and the latrines are nowhere near complete.

"Do you know when it will be ready?" a newly arrived Red Cross worker asks OXFAM's Lorenz around 1 p.m.

"We're told people are coming on Friday," he replies.

But as the afternoon goes on, rumors begin to fly that the camp might have to open sooner. A German officer has heard that 900 refugees were taken overnight to the nearby camp at Senokos, which was so crowded they had to sleep between tents under plastic sheeting. And the no-man's land between the Yugoslav and Macedonian borders is filling up so fast that many refugees have no shelter at all.

Camp Cegrane: NATO, German soldiers, the Macedonian government and multiple aid organizations work together to turn a sheep pasture into a home for more than 2,000 refugees.

By 5 p.m., the camp is buzzing as word spreads that a convoy of refugee buses is on its way.

"How many people in it?" asks Markus Oxley, whose CARE International team will manage the camp.

"I heard 1,500 to 2,000," someone answers.

"You got water?"

"We got the tank being filled today," says Lorenz of OXFAM.

A few minutes past 6 p.m., Buchmueller, the German engineer, makes it official.

"It's now for sure," he says. "At least 2,000 people are coming, maybe 5,000. In three hours."

Stunned silence. Then, like hosts who discover their guests are showing up early, everyone swings into frantic action.

There are countless details to be worked out. Will the refugees be registered when they arrive or can that wait until daylight? (It can wait.)

Who will guard the entrance to the camp -- the German soldiers or the Macedonian police? (The police.)

How many blankets per person? (Two.)

Is it possible to get the blankets out of the warehouse in Skopje? (Uncertain.)

The major problem is still sanitation. The Macedonian crews have dug only one of the six holes needed for the septic tanks. Now the workmen are having dinner and drinking beer, and they look as though they're about to leave for the night.

"Get their supervisor on the phone," a UNHCR official orders his interpreter.

Amazingly, things start coming together. At 7 p.m. a truckload of ready-to-eat meals arrives, compliments of the U.N.'s World Food Program. Five minutes later, the first group of Macedonian police drive up.

As night falls, the Macedonian contractors are back at work, nearly completing one large bank of latrines. There won't be any doors until tomorrow, but at least people won't be forced to use the ground as a toilet.

The German soldiers, who have been doing yeoman duty, set up the last of the tents and turn their attention to lighting the medical compound and the reception area. Several trucks rumble into camp, loaded with pallets of bottled water.

At 11:15 p.m., the cry goes out.

"There they are!" From out of the darkness emerge the headlights of the first refugee bus. Even through the fogged-up windows, dozens of sad, exhausted faces are clearly visible as the bus pulls into view. The mayor and deputy mayor of Cegrane are on hand to greet them, probably the first true welcome these refugees have had.

There is one last problem. Although the wind has died down and the skies are clear, the temperature has dipped into the low 40s. And no blankets have arrived.

Once again, the German soldiers come to the rescue. They locate a cache of 22,500 blankets in the nearby city of Tetovo. It will take about 30 minutes for them to get here. Until then the refugees will stay on the bus where it is warm.

THURSDAY: Camp Cegrane

It is 45 minutes after midnight when the bus finally unloads. After all that has led up to this moment, it seems almost anticlimactic when the first family, guided only by the full moon and a soldier's flashlight, silently makes its way up the hill and into a tent.

Behind those five people are at least 100 more. And behind that first bus are another 22. It will take until well after dawn -- six hours from now -- to unload all 2,300 men, women and children. And many, many more will follow into Macedonia's eighth and newest refugee camp.

"Camp Cegrane," says a weary CARE worker, "is open for business."

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