At a refugee camp near Skopje, Macedonia, it is all too easy to see the pain on the faces of thousands of displaced Albanian Kosovar children. Some have been separated from their mothers. Others have seen their fathers marched off at gunpoint by Serbian soldiers. Not surprisingly, the sound of children weeping can often be heard in the chilly early spring air. But more disturbing, says PEOPLE correspondent Pete Norman, are the littlest refugees who show no emotion at all. “You look into their eyes and you see their mind is elsewhere,” he says. “Like it’s all a terrible dream to them.”
That sense of unreality can extend to those of us watching the nightmare unfold from the safety of another continent. “The scope of this is inconceivable. How can you imagine 150,000 children running for their lives?” asks senior editor Jim Kunen, who directed this week’s coverage of the Kosovo crisis, which begins on page 54. “By bringing to our readers the story of the few, we try to make real the plight of the many.”
When the enormity of that plight was becoming clear, PEOPLE dispatched four correspondents to the front lines of the crisis in Albania and Macedonia: Norman, Nina Biddle and Liz Corcoran flew in from London, while Joanne Fowler came from New York City. Teamed up with photographers, the reporters quickly had to improvise everything from helicopter transport and phone lines to basics like food, water and shelter—a challenging task, but secondary compared to the conditions faced by those ripped from their homes. “It is a really humbling experience,” says Fowler, reporting from Macedonia, where rows of tents now stretch endlessly across muddy fields. “A lot of the children we talked to were suffering. They don’t like sleeping outside in the cold, and there are only a few toys floating around. Obviously, they don’t want to be here.”
Still, as Corcoran watched the youngest refugees cross the Albanian border, she knew they were glad just to be alive. “You could see the relief in their faces,” she says. “The kids came through flashing ‘V’ signs. They are such tough people, it’s amazing.” Adds Norman: “They have incredible dignity, considering what they have gone through.” But in a setting of fear, desolation and heartbreak, their bravery is being put to a test beyond anything children should ever have to endure.