TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
May 19, 1999
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
April 29, 1997