salon.com News April 6, 1999 URL: http://www.salon.com/news/feature/1999/04/06/demick "Better to be killed by the Serbs"
NATO had spy photos of miles of refugees fleeing Kosovo a week ago. Why weren't we prepared for the disaster at the border? - - - - - - - - - - - - By Barbara Demick The refreshments were carefully laid out on a banquet table in Skopje's Continental Hotel. It was Friday morning and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had summoned the diplomatic corps of Macedonia to a brunch meeting to discuss the emerging refugee crisis. Twelve miles away, in Blace, the main border crossing from Kosovo into Macedonia, there was little evidence of such careful preparation.
Alongside the railroad tracks that lead from Pristina runs a broad, green valley. Spilled into that valley Friday were more people than I'd ever seen in my life, a mass gathering to rival the most extravagant David O. Selznick epic. There were 50,000 Kosovo refugees, maybe 65,000 or more -- too many for anybody to count -- and that didn't include a column snaking back 20 miles from inside Kosovo, all waiting to cross.
At least at first, the refugees were giddy with relief to be in Macedonia. Most had been robbed, shelled, shot at by snipers and half-starved by the Serbs before being rounded up in trains and trucks, then dumped ignominiously in the field at Blace. But as the sun slunk behind the mountains -- the darkening sky exuding a steady drizzle, temperatures slipping into the 40s -- the horror of their circumstances began to sink in. Panic swept through the crowd. They pushed over one another to grab woolen blankets tossed from a cardboard box. But without tents, without even plastic sheeting, the blankets would soon turn soggy. Food rations consisted of bread and water, and not enough of either. The refugees scrounged the ground for used plastic bottles to fill from a water tanker, turning to a none-too-clean stream next to the tracks when the tanker ran dry. They sheepishly looked for clumps of trees behind which they could relieve themselves, but with Macedonian soldiers wielding batons to cordon them into the valley, the call of nature overpowered decorum. By Saturday, the valley was filled with human excrement.
Endeavoring to maintain order, the Macedonian soldiers wanted to keep the journalists out of the valley. So I watched from above with my 24-year-old translator, Alban, a university student who had escaped Pristina himself two weeks earlier. The refugees in this field of horrors had come mostly from Pristina. Horrified, Alban scanned this writhing sea of human misery for familiar faces.
"I know these people. I used to see them in the cafes. I can't explain to you. They used to wear nice clothes. They looked cool. I can't recognize people now. It is night and day," he struggled to tell me.
It is a terrible thing to be a refugee, forced out of one's home at gunpoint with no money or belongings. It is quite another level of horror to be dumped into a field of mud and shit and left to forage like an animal for food and warmth. Where were the tents? Where was the plastic sheeting? Where was the food? Where were the portable toilets? Where was the evidence that NATO, which says it anticipated the mass displacement of Kosovars that would begin with the bombing, had prepared for this predictable humanitarian crisis?
"We are overwhelmed," pleaded Paula Ghedina, the UNHCR's spokeswoman in Skopje. "The mechanisms were set up for 2,000 to 3,000 people a day. We were taken aback by the numbers."
But although it is possible that nobody imagined Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would have the chutzpah to empty out Pristina, a city of 350,000, so quickly, his campaign did not occur without warning. By March 26, two days after the NATO airstrikes were launched, NATO had reports that tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians had been kicked out of their homes in north and central Kosovo. On March 31, spy satellites detected up a column of refugees eight miles long being marched out of Pristina. How could anyone then claim to be surprised when those miles of refugees poured over the border on the weekend?
More plausible is a cynical, not-for-attribution explanation offered by another UNHCR official:
"People have to see these images on television before anybody cares. We did anticipate that up to 1 million people would come across the borders. But if we had said a few weeks ago, we need $2 billion and all these C-130s (transport planes) we would have been laughed at ... It is not until people start dying that the world pays attention."In Blace, 11 people died on Friday night, another 14 on Saturday night. On Sunday, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea announced that the alliance was "mobilizing itself and mobilizing its member nations" to help the refugees.
But the mobilization is still inadequate to meet the need. As of midday Monday, the first refugees -- some 90 lucky souls -- were scheduled to fly out of Skopje on a Norwegian C-130. No other flights had been scheduled.
"NATO gives the impression that all these tens of thousands of people are winging their way to safety to all these wonderfully welcoming countries. That is simply not true. It will take an enormous amount of time," said the UNHCR official. "For NATO, until this weekend, the humanitarian crisis wasn't on the radar screen."
Macedonia may be one of Europe's lesser known countries, but it is hardly the end of the earth. Skopje has a McDonald's, as well as ATM machines where you can withdraw cash from your U.S. bank account. There is an international airport, with direct flights from Vienna and Zurich, only about 30 minutes' drive from the field of horrors in Blace. The United States and most European countries have ambassadors posted here. The utter lack of humanitarian preparedness is not explained by Macedonia's remoteness, or its poverty. Skopje has dozens of aid agencies, but sadly, most of the supplies NATO and the United States had provided are stuck in Belgrade, where they are useless in helping those fleeing Kosovo.
But there are military implications of the lack of preparedness, too. NATO sent 12,000 troops to Macedonia well in advance to prepare for implementing the Rambouillet peace agreement inside Kosovo. Little thought was given to the alternative outcome, however: What would happen if that deal was nixed, and the Serbs launched a massive campaign of "ethnic cleansing."
The worst-case scenario was so awful that nobody wanted to think it through. But it came true, and the lack of readiness has placed U.S. and NATO forces, not just Kosovar refugees, at risk.
Consider the plight of Sgts. Christopher Stone and Andrew Ramirez and Spec. Steven Gonzales, captured last week by the Serbs on a routine patrol mission at the Yugoslav-Macedonia border. The Americans had been trained and equipped for a hitherto deadly dull U.N. peacekeeping mission, where it was considered an eventful day if a Humvee ran into a cow. Did nobody realize how the NATO airstrikes would raise the temperatures at the border?
On the ground in Macedonia, there is plenty of grumbling in the upper ranks of the NATO military about the lack of planning and resolve towards the Kosovo problem. Says one commander, NATO had a choice of doing nothing about Kosovo, or going to war against Yugoslavia. "What they'd done instead is thrash around in the middle, looking for the low risk, high payoff solution. And this is what they get," he said. Another military man suggests NATO is stumbling because it has failed to acknowledge what by now should be patently obvious: We are in a state of war with Yugoslavia.
"It looks like a duck, it walks like a duck. It is a war, only nobody dares say so," he said.
After we returned to Skopje, Alban, my translator, borrowed my satellite telephone to call his parents, still hiding in out in Pristina in a rare house with a working telephone.
"Don't come out," he told them, describing the horror in Blace. "Better to be killed by the Serbs than that."
salon.com | April 6, 1999
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