A Balkan Eyewitness: The War Must Be Won

Commenting on the Allied campaign against the Milosevic regime is not, of course, an activity restricted to those who have any personal knowledge of the situation. Pundits who had never heard of Kosovo before last winter now speak with assurance about the conflict there. Informed views are harder to find. But the other day, someone very close to me returned home from a visit to the refugee camps on the Macedonian border and told me what she saw and heard.

She is a director of a humanitarian relief organization that has been providing medical care to ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo for the past several years. Like most officials of humanitarian and human rights groups, she usually cannot comment publicly on political or military issues without jeopardizing her organization’s work and even the lives of its employees. So let’s just call her E.

The last time E. went to Kosovo was during the summer of 1997, when she returned with warnings about the deteriorating

conditions there. The first signs of ethnic cleansing were all too apparent, as was the rise in terrorist reaction by the Kosovo Liberation Army. By then, she and her colleagues in the international relief sector were well aware of the Serb government’s severe oppression of the local population, although the rest of the world was paying little attention. Deprivation of medical care was one part of a much wider Serbian crusade against the Kosovars, which was why her organization had set up operations there in the first place.

E. spent several days walking through the camps, helping with tent-to-tent surveys of the conditions and needs of families that had just crossed the border into Macedonia. “In each tent, we and our translator would go through a long list of questions with each family, about basic nutrition, hygiene and disease. Did anyone have diabetes or hypertension, lice or scabies? Was anybody pregnant?” The final question asked was whether the entire family was present. “That was when many of them would begin to weep and tell us their stories.”

“That opened them up to discuss what had happened to them and their villages,” said E. “The stories were mostly very similar: Gangs of marauding Serbs had showed up at their doors, told them they had five or 10 minutes to leave, then looted and burned their houses as they fled. I met a family of five who were ordered to get out and, as they started packing their belongings, the Serbs suddenly shot the father because they said he was too slow, and the mother and children had to step over his body in their living room to get out of their home before the paramilitaries torched it … To our knowledge, this has been

going on for many months, long before the NATO air campaign began. Many of these people had been living in the mountains and forests for close to a year.

“All of them just want to go home. Very few expressed any interest in coming to the U.S. or western Europe. And the only way they believed they would get home would be if there was an armed force to protect them.”

What truly stunned E., however, was the spontaneous greeting of the refugees as she walked through the camps. “Everywhere we went, people would come up and thank us-especially the Americans in our group. And they were thanking us not just for the food and medicine, but for the bombing! Over and over again, they told us how grateful they are to America and NATO, because they believe that forcing Milosevic to surrender is the only way they’re going to get home again.” One family told her that they had worried for weeks about the pilot of an Allied plane they had seen crash-and were relieved to learn later that it was an unmanned surveillance aircraft.

Nor are the refugees quite as critical of NATO’s shortcomings as many of our own armchair strategists. “They told us that they understand what happens in a war, that not every bomb is going to hit the right target,” said E. “When they heard news of 89 civilians being killed accidentally, they said they knew the Serbs were responsible for putting refugees in harm’s way.”

Like E., the leaders of American humanitarian organizations are not free to openly voice their opinions about the war. But on April 2, a dozen of them met with President Clinton to thank him for releasing $50 million in emergency refugee aid. In the privacy of the White House, one of them said what all were thinking: “Mr. President, you need to know that we support the bombing campaign, and we don’t believe that bombing has caused the refugee problem.” Indeed, many feel that Mr. Clinton should be courageous enough to send in ground forces.

Every day, these humanitarians assume responsibility for people in need and in many instances risk their lives. Unlike pundits and politicians they are silent, but they believe NATO must win.