Yugoslavia / Kosovo: Handover at Merdare
03-02-2000 News Release 00/03
It was a scene that could have come straight from a novel by John Le Carré: the icy roadway gleaming white under a canopy of stars in a cloudless sky, temperatures edging the wrong way past minus 10 degrees, soldiers in combat uniform carrying automatic rifles, a line of vehicles standing empty by the roadside while their occupants, huddled in small groups, peered anxiously towards the checkpoint, their breath condensing in the frosty air and mixing with the smoke of fast-burning cigarettes.
This was Merdare, a crossing point into Kosovo, at 5.30 p.m. on 28 January as another desperately cold winter night was falling. The groups of civilians, both children and adults, were waiting for their first, eagerly-anticipated glimpse of relatives coming from the other side of the boundary line: 22 men who had just been released from Serbian prisons.
The British soldiers manning the checkpoint were friendly, but vigilant: blocking the road were two busloads of Serb civilians leaving Kosovo to visit relatives in Serbia, or perhaps leaving for good as the province had become increasingly dangerous for them in the past half year.
At last the buses moved on, opening the way for incoming vehicles, first among them three ICRC Land Cruisers. A murmur of excitement arose from the waiting crowd, some of whom had been standing there for nearly eight hours. No longer able to restrain themselves, people surged forward as the vehicles pulled up.
Alexandra, head of the ICRC team, reassured the eager relatives that the necessary formalities – one last check of t he lists and the signing of release forms – would be completed as quickly as possible so as not to delay further the moment of freedom that everyone gathered there had been dreaming of for months.
Soon the men began to pour from the vehicles and, for those whose families were present, received that first embrace.
The dozen or so men whose relatives were nowhere to be seen climbed back into the waiting vehicles and began the hour-long journey to Pristina. There, outside the ICRC office, another crowd of perhaps a hundred had gathered, scrutinizing each vehicle as it turned into the car park. After a quick coffee and a cigarette, and the chance to see a doctor if they wished, the men moved into the reception hall and began to search the throng for their relatives, some of whom were looking almost panic-stricken at the thought that their husband, brother or father might not, after all, be in the group.
The last man to emerge was the oldest, a grandfather: almost blind, a simple black cap on his head, his shabby jacket buttoned up against the cold. In a scene that moved everyone, even ICRC delegates used to witnessing such events, he was met by his small granddaughter who ran straight into his arms. While the men who had been claimed by their loved ones quickly dispersed, one forlorn family stood there facing bitter disappointment. All they had left was the hope that, one day soon, he too would come home.
This release brings to more than 400 the number of detainees who have been returned to their families by the ICRC since June 1999. About 1,600 detainees are currently still being visited by ICRC delegates in Serbia. The ICRC is trying to ensure that they are treated humanely, that their conditions of detention are decent and that they can keep in touch with their families through Red Cross messages.