BLACE, MACEDONIA — An old South Slavic adage states: "The Balkans are the despair of tidy minds."
Now, as the dimensions of the Serbian expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo becomes clearer and shock waves from a huge flow of refugees out of Kosovo begin to register elsewhere in Europe, that adage takes on a troubling new meaning. In this ethnically sensitive part of the world, refugees have an explosive political impact that is unpredictable and can be used as a subtle weapon.
Western officials assumed airstrikes against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would bring refugees from Kosovo and a further razing of villages. But the massive surge of terrorized, hungry Albanians crossing the border bespeaks a larger "ethnic cleansing" campaign than most imagined.
Even veteran aid workers were visibly stunned by the evident scale and ferocity of the Serbian military operation, which appears to have involved the systematic emptying of Pristina, a regional capital of 250,000 people. Here in Macedonia, the presence of some 115,000 refugees along the border (and another100,000 to 300,000 reportedly on the way), has shifted popular opinion sharply against the NATO military alliance.
In Balkan logic the ongoing exodus of ethnic Albanians, who made up 90 percent of Kosovo's population, has two immediate meanings, experts say. First, it fulfills a century-old Serb nationalist dream, often articulated in stark terms, to rid its mythic heartland of all non-Serbs.
Second, the refugees, particularly angry young Albanian males, add to regional tensions. Macedonia is already 27 percent ethnic Albanian. The fragile and impoverished state has the only real multiethnic government left in the former Yugoslavia, which Western governments and international organizations worked hard to help solidify during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
"The flood of refugees from Kosovo is an indirect attack on our stability as deliberately planned by Slobodan Milosevic as if he were bombing us, " says a senior Macedonian foreign ministry official.
At this border crossing refugees, who tell of being herded out of Kosovo through a gantlet of Serb paramilitary gangs, have been packed for days in a tiny valley under drizzling cold rain. Several have died of exposure.
About 50,000 have been allowed into a holding area on the Macedonian side. But Macedonian officials, worried about a huge overnight demographic shift, have greatly restricted further entry and deployed Army units to police an area where Albanians were crossing freely. On Sunday, reporters saw a barbed wire fence had been erected.
That has left some 65,000 Albanians - and the number is growing by the hour - in a "no man's land" 500 yards away. They are waiting for a transit center that newly arrived American officials have promised to build, and for US and European officials to decide how many refugees they will take. As of this writing, the center still was not set up.
For days, Albanians on the border were supplied only with bread and water brought in on tractors driven by local Albanians. No sanitation was provided.
Consciously absent until late Sunday were Macedonian officials and UN aid agencies. Relief workers say Macedonian authorities held up food and other deliveries at the airport and on the ground while demanding help from Western governments. American special envoy Strobe Talbott arrived Sunday to work out terms of assistance.
Starting Saturday morning, Macedonian police no longer allowed reporters to enter the valley where the refugees are huddled. But enough have made it through to talk with reporters.
Their stories are often conflicting, though patterns did emerge: Unlike Albanians crossing into Montenegro or Albania, most refugees from Pristina kept their identification papers. Nor were women and men separated, as was the case with those entering Montenegro, which, with Serbia, makes up what remains of Yugoslavia.
On the way to the border, they were often stopped every few miles by Serbs demanding jewelry or cars. Many endured beatings and threats at gunpoint.
One woman claimed Serbs transported families in dump trucks that were emptied by raising the flatbed and pouring them out like sand.
"All we know is what people tell us, and what they are telling us is that no one is left in Pristina," says Joseph Hegenauer, head of the United Nations relief agency.
Irfan, a young man from a village outside Pristina, says Serb paramilitary forces attacked his town more than a week before the NATO bombings began. Irfan, who joined the Kosovo Liberation Army during a mobilization April 1, says he and his friends left their homes after armed Serbs shot several town leaders.
"I will not stay in Macedonia long," he says. "We will go back home one way or another."
There is a strong expectation among the refugees that they will soon return home after a NATO operation to liberate Kosovo.