Refugee Relief: One Victory for NATO

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NATO may not be militarily active on the ground in Kosovo, but there is one aspect of the ground war where NATO is pouring in everything it can: the humanitarian battle. The allies are sending everything necessary to Albania and Macedonia -- food, medicine, tents, latrines -- to relieve the plight of the more than 500,000 refugees who have spilled over the Kosovo border in desperation. For now, that battle is being won. "The refugee situation has eased off," reports TIME East European bureau chief Massimo Calabresi. "NATO has rushed in the infrastructure and quickly set up all the nuts and bolts" to take care of the refugees' immediate needs. Albania has even passed a law giving NATO virtual carte blanche to do whatever it needs to win the war and help the refugees. As a result, unsanitary camps have been dismantled and most everyone moved to relatively clean and functional facilities.

"NATO is working hard on the refugee situation because that's the one factor that's very much under its control," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. It would be disastrous to the NATO cause if the alliance were to come across as not even capable of dealing with the refugee problem. And so, in contrast with their relative reticence over the military campaign, says Branegan, "NATO briefers are always more than happy to talk about what's being done to help the refugees."

Though the short-term crisis appears under control, the future of the refugees remains uncertain. One emerging problem is the location and reunification of refugee families, many of whom were split up in flight or during relocations. "The International Red Cross has been brought in to help with that because it's an expert on tracing people," says Calabresi. The NATO allies are also worried about the continuing flow of refugees out of Kosovo. Macedonia, in particular, does not want more ethnic Albanians on its soil for fear of upsetting its delicate ethnic balance. The country is continually pressing the allies to ferry them elsewhere, which the allies have so far done, flying several thousand to places as disparate as Albania, Turkey, Norway and Germany. None will be coming to U.S. terrritory, however. "America's offer of Guantanamo Bay was turned down by refugee groups," says Branegan, "because it was too far away and seemed like a prison."

The flip side of the problem with the continuing exodus is concern over the displaced ethnic Albanians that remain inside Kosovo. An estimated 400,000 remain trapped or on the run. NATO has no way to help those inside Kosovo, says Branegan, and policymakers remain frustrated over their inability to make a difference for them. Beyond these problems lies NATO's concern about how this war will end for the refugees: "Will the alliance be able to deliver on its promise to get all of them back home?" asks Calabresi. Because of its ethnic fragility, Macedonia is in no position to permanently absorb the refugees on its soil. And Albania, while happy to receive its ethnic brethren, is economically unable to care for them in the long term. How and where the refugees ultimately wind up will in large measure determine how long the guns can stay silent once the last shot of the NATO operation is heard.

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