TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
Their faces may no longer appear on the front pages of our newspapers
and magazines, but there are still nearly 750,000 Kosovar Albanians unable to
return to their homes because of the ruthless determination of Serbian
President Slobodan Milosevic. Nearly 250,000 are in Macedonia alone.
Last week, I traveled to Macedonia to visit the Stenkovac I refugee
camp, located outside Skopje in a region of lush, green hills dotted with small
farms. Thousands of tents -- in rows as far as the eye can see -- cover a dusty
expanse about the size of 80 football fields. As many as 31,000 refugees --
most of them children -- have crowded into the camp in the last six weeks.
It was a hot, dry day when I arrived at Stenkovac to meet some of the
men, women and children who have made this tent city their temporary home. Most
were separated from a family member in the crush to get out of Kosovo alive,
and everyone is surviving on the hope that one day soon they will return to
their villages and be reunited with their loved ones.
A 63-year-old woman told me she doesn't know where her daughter and
grandchildren are. They were with the daughter's in-laws when Serb police
stormed the house, held guns to their throats and ordered them to leave.
One of the men I met cried when he remembered the funeral of a friend
in his village: Serb police surrounded the mourners as they stood at the grave,
threatening to kill them all. Then, they stripped the Albanians of their money
and valuables and drove them away.
I also spoke with a man who, in fluent English, told me that his wife
and children were visiting her father when the Serbs arrived, forcing him to
flee without them. Six weeks later, he is still trying to find them.
I will never forget the last story I heard that day. A woman described
the crush of refugees being herded onto trains to leave Kosovo. She held
tightly to the hand of her oldest daughter who, in turn, held onto the younger
children. Horrified, she felt her daughter's hand slip away. Forced by the
authorities to board a train, she realized that her girls and her husband, who
was trying to find them, were lost. Today, she, too, lives without any word of
where they are or even whether they are still alive.
For 10 years, Milosevic has oppressed the Albanian population in
Kosovo. First, they were forbidden to go to the theater or sporting events, and
their schools were closed. Then, block by block, Milosevic began ordering
families out of their homes, until he was expelling Kosovar Albanians in the
massive numbers we have witnessed in the last two months.
Once, these people lived in their own homes. Parents worked, and
children went to schools. Today, they huddle in crowded tents. They wait in
line for food -- bread, canned fish, cheese, juice and milk. They wait in line
to use portable toilets and phones, and to get word of missing loved ones.
And these are the lucky ones.
Although the conditions they live in are unimaginable to most of us,
they have food and rudimentary shelter. A remarkable assemblage of some 20
relief organizations, led by Catholic Relief Services and under the authority
of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, runs the Stenkovac I camp,
providing care for the children, medical treatment and social services.
There are two UNICEF schools and a youth center run by an Israeli
organization, where children of all ages can enjoy arts, crafts, games and
music. The German Red Cross has opened a hospital. Medical teams have arrived
from France and as far away as Taiwan. The International Rescue Committee, an
American group, is trying to reunite families. And many of the refugees
themselves are volunteering their services around the camp.
Every single person I met at Stenkovac has one thing in common: Each
one wants to go home. And, despite the horrors they have endured, they all told
me how grateful they are to the United States and the NATO allies for standing
up to Slobodan Milosevic. As the refugees told me their stories, their eyes
filled with tears, just as their hearts are filled with hope.
Veton Sylejmani, who came to this country with his wife and 7-month-old
son, Albert, summed it up best at the White House this week when he said, "I
don't know what else to say except God bless America."
We cannot let these people down. We must tell and retell their stories,
because there is no more powerful argument for why the United States and our
NATO allies are in Kosovo. There is no more powerful justification for why we
will not give up until the evils perpetrated by Milosevic have ended and these
refugees are once again living in their own homes in peace and security.
COPYRIGHT 1997 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED