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In five days, a home for 2,000

Working by moonlight, less than six hours before the first refugees are set to arrive, Macedonian workers assemble metal stalls for the pit toilets.

Story by SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN Times Senior Correspondent

Photos by JAMIE FRANCIS of the Times staff

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 1999


CEGRANE, Macedonia -- A cold wind is sweeping down from the mountains as Klaus Buchmueller calls together the little group in charge of building the world's newest camp for Kosovo refugees.

The German engineer is clearly agitated. He looks at the Australians who will manage the camp. He eyes the Norwegians who are in charge of the sanitation system and the Briton who is setting up the water supply network. He looks at the French who will staff the field hospital and the American who is helping oversee the whole thing for the United Nations.

Then he says what they all dread to hear.

The refugees are coming. Tonight. At least 2,000 of them, perhaps as many as 5,000.

In just a few hours, they will become the full responsibility of 100 German NATO troops and a dozen or so international aid workers. It is a mind-boggling prospect.

Since construction began only three days ago, the camp has been beset with problems. The soldiers lost precious hours erecting the fancy British-made tents because they had come without a single diagram or word of instruction. The aid workers have been frustrated by the Macedonian contractors, who seem to arrive late and leave early. A day-long downpour has turned part of the site into a quagmire.

It would be a push, everyone had agreed, getting the camp finished by Thursday or Friday.

Now on Wednesday evening -- a full 24 hours earlier than anyone expected -- thousands of people are on their way.

There is not a single bottle of water for them. Not a single blanket or toilet or place to shower. It is almost inconceivable that the camp will be ready when the buses arrive in the dead of night with their exhausted passengers. But the seven existing camps in Macedonia are dangerously overcrowded and there is simply no place to put anyone else.

Buchmueller begins grabbing Gore-Tex jackets, left over from the old East German police force, and shoves them toward the lightly dressed aid officials. The night ahead will be cold -- and long.

"Remember," he says, "we're doing this for the refugees."

SUNDAY: Getting Started

One by one: German soldiers still assemble tents just hours before the refugees arrive. About 500 tents are erected to shelter 5,000 refugees.

Ever since thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo began pouring in here more than a month ago, the Slavs who dominate Macedonia's 2-million population have feared that the influx will upset their country's ethnic balance. So the Macedonian government has put the refugee camps in some of the most out-of-the-way places it can find

Like this remote village near the Kosovo-Albanian border in rural western Macedonia.

In one sense, Cegrane is an ideal spot for a refugee camp. Nearly every one of its 15,000 residents is of Albanian ancestry, and they support their Kosovo brethren with an enthusiasm unseen in the more Slavic parts of Macedonia.

"NATO WELCOME IN" reads a big banner stretched across the dusty main street.

But the village is just a few hundred yards downhill from the proposed camp site. As representatives of the various aid agencies meet here for the first time -- sitting in a hot sun on unopened boxes of tents -- they worry about the effect on the village.

"The village has a very shallow well system and there is a school that draws water from the wells. So the biggest concern is that we don't contaminate the groundwater," Werner Schellenberger of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees tells the group. "Otherwise we're going to have a lot of sick villagers a week after this place opens."

The temporary solution: The latrines will be built over huge, sealed septic containers that the U.S. government donated to Macedonia in 1997 and that have sat forgotten at the airport until now. The sewage will be pumped out and trucked away until the Macedonian contractors can build a permanent system.

As Schellenberger outlines the master plan, it becomes obvious that refugee camps are far more than the crowded collection of tents they appear to be on CNN. In reality, they are complex communities with many of the same problems and bureaucratic headaches facing well-established cities. The big difference is that they are put up almost overnight by people who come from from foreign countries, speak a variety of languages and rarely know much about each other or the area.

This site poses several challenges. To avoid having big trucks trundle directly through the center of camp, as they do elsewhere, Schellenberger wants to put the food distribution tents on the north side. But the "road" is nothing but a muddy rut, and it is not clear who owns the land or whether they will give permission for its use.

Schellenberger gets a bit testy when it's suggested he consider an alternative food site.

"You can say, "Bulls- -- -, I don't want it' and then I've got to find another solution," he tells the group. "But with my background and knowledge I believe this is going to be the best way."

They are well into the meeting before someone asks the question on everybody's mind:

"When are you looking at the refugees arriving?"

Schellenberger doesn't answer at first. Instead he recaps the sanitation problem and notes that the building of tents is coming along well. After struggling with the lack of directions, the German soldiers have managed to put up 50 of the big British tents that, with their marquees and wooden center stakes, look like something out of Rudyard Kipling's India.

By the time they have finished erecting all 500 tents planned for the camp's first phase, there will be shelter for 5,000 people.

"Optimistically," Schellenberger says, "we might be able to open by Thursday or Friday. That's optimistically."

TUESDAY: A Dilemma

Supplies: Action Against Hunger unloads potatoes for refugees who are living with families in Cegrane.

Ron Redmond, a Seattle newspaper editor who has taken a leave to work for UNHCR, gets right to the point

"Our camps have become increasingly crowded. We are now jammed to the breaking point."

Although 1,000 refugees a day are being flown to other countries, as many as 3,000 a day are streaming across the border from Kosovo. "It's still one step forward, two steps back," Redmond says.

With some new arrivals forced to sleep outdoors, pressure is mounting to open Cegrane as fast as possible. But such is the extent of the refugee crisis that the new camp would quickly be filled to capacity even if it took nothing but the overflow from existing camps.

"That," says Redmond, "is the dilemma we're facing."

2:30 p.m. -- Back in Cegrane, the director of the village's huge primary school is railing against his country's leaders.

"The Macedonian government took much money from the humanitarian organizations but it didn't do anything for the refugees," charges Zejni Bilali, an ethnic Albanian. "The only people who do something are the Albanian people who live here."

In the past month, residents of the Cegrane area have opened their homes to more than 1,700 Kosovo refugees, swelling the population. The school, which normally has 2,000 students, has had to go on double sessions to accommodate another 385 refugee children.

The mayor of the village is Emshi Ejupi, a lawyer whose navy pinstriped suit no longer quite fits his rotund form. He has the big smile and hearty handshake of politicians everywhere, but he too is sharply critical of the Macedonian leadership.

"We heard from television that the camp will be built here," he says. "We have more contacts with UNHCR and with the German soldiers than we do with the Macedonian government."

However, the mayor is pleased to help the refugees -- he has taken in three himself -- and notes that one great benefit might arise from their presence. Thanks to the camp, Cegrane will finally get the modern water distribution system that the government started years ago but abandoned for lack of money.

But in the short term, at least, there continue to be hassles. OXFAM, the British agency setting up the temporary water system, is having coordination problems with Pelagonia, the Macedonian construction firm that's doing much of the camp's infrastructure work.

"I've lost a day this week because the roles keep changing," says Richard Lorenz, OXFAM's man on the scene. "Two days ago I was doing what I'm doing now -- purchasing and supplying and building an emergency water system. Then yesterday the role was changed to producing a design plan for Pelagonia. Now it's changed back again. There are so many organizations here and who knows who does what."

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