U.S. Military Mounts Massive Relief Drive for Kosovars
By Maj. Donna Miles, USAR
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 19, 1999 Television reports show the direful situation: hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees who have fled their homeland living in makeshift border camps in Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia. Defense Department officials estimate up to 700,000 others remain in southern Kosovo, driven from their homes and hiding from the Serbs for fear of their lives.
The refugees in and out of Kosovo pose a monumental humanitarian crisis to the United States and 40 other countries that have donated and delivered aid to the region. Army Lt. Gen. Mike McDuffie, director of logistics for the Joint Staff, said the relief effort, shared by the military and international organizations, is making steady progress in easing the refugees' plight.
He said conditions have improved dramatically since the tide of hungry and desperate refugees first overwhelmed aid workers in the region. International aid agencies are busy building new camps for the nearly half-million refugees in Macedonia and Albania and a temporary runway for airlifting supplies.
As its contribution to the effort, the United States has committed to establishing a camp to accommodate 20,000 of the refugees in Albania. "It's a significant commitment we've made," McDuffie said. Once established, the military will turn the camp over to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Initial U.S. plans had called for the temporary settlement of 20,000 refugees at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Stabilization of the refugee situation -- plus the fact that the Albanian Kosovars did not want to go so far from their homeland -- sidelined that plan, at least for now. McDuffie, however, did not rule out the use of Guantanamo Bay later, noting the base is ready if needed.
He said the decision to set up a refugee camp in Albania fits better with NATO's long-term goal for the Balkans. "The ultimate objective is to return the refugees to Kosovo [under the protection of an allied peacekeeping force], so it made sense to keep them in Albania," he said.
The Albanian government has agreed to take in refugees as long as Western countries house and provide supplies for them. According to the UNHCR, Albania is now housing 303,000 refugees, Macedonia has 117,000, and Montenegro has 59,000.
In addition, Germany has agreed to temporarily resettle 40,000 refugees, Turkey, 20,000, Norway, 6,000, and Canada and Greece, 5,000 each. These temporary resettlements are planned to ease the burden on Albania and Macedonia.
A U.S. European Command team visited Albania to assess the airports, roads, ports and other facilities required to establish and supply the U.S. relief camp. In addition, the team is helping United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations coordinate relief operations.
Establishing the camp will pose a variety of challenges, including security concerns, poor roads and limited airfields. But McDuffie said the infrastructure is better than in some cases he's faced during previous U.S. humanitarian efforts in Africa and elsewhere in the Balkans.
"We have capabilities in the region," he said, including a 12,000-person peacekeeping force in Macedonia. Albania also has usable airfields for relief flights.
"So while certainly you could always improve road structure, you could always improve airfields, we have the basic infrastructure already in place to be able to conduct the operations," he said.
McDuffie said airlift has so far been the U.S. military's biggest contribution to the relief effort. The United States has flown thousands of tents and hundreds of thousands of humanitarian daily rations, each containing one day's complete food requirement for one person, to the region. In addition, he said, military and civilian flights have transported water, blankets, cots, plastic sheeting, power generators and material handling equipment such as forklifts.
Relief supplies are being flown from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., Dover AFB, Del., and Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
"The United States has unique capabilities because it has the only strategic airlift capability to project things in quickly," McDuffie said. "It's because of our uniqueness that we're able to help people in need."
Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, U.S. Air Force Gen. Joe Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a 12-member congressional delegation visited Ramstein in early April to observe the airlift operations.
"On one hand, you're great warriors and, on the other, you're also great humanitarians," Cohen told members of the 37th Airlift Squadron. "We are deeply appreciative of everything that you're doing."
No relief supplies are being airdropped for the displaced population in Kosovo. McDuffie said while the United States dropped supplies to Bosnian refugees years before, the situation in Kosovo is far different.
A U.N. force was in place in Bosnia and the United States had been assured its aircraft would not be attacked, he noted. In Kosovo, Serb anti-aircraft artillery and missiles threaten the NATO air assaults and would also put relief flights at risk. "It's very dangerous," he said.
McDuffie said other considerations played into the decision not to airdrop supplies into Kosovo. "We could end up resupplying the Serbian military," he said. "There would be no way to know if we can were actually getting to the Kosovars."
Even if supplies reached the ethnic Albanians, McDuffie said, airdrops could put them at increased risk by acting as a lure. "You would be establishing almost a magnet for the Kosovars. They could be rounded up by the Serbs even more," he said.
McDuffie credited U.N. relief agencies with providing strong leadership in coordinating the refugee support mission. He cited the "strong synergy" of the civil-military cooperation that built on the strengths of each organization and eliminated redundancies.
He said the military's vast capabilities make it uniquely qualified to assist in the operation. "We can put that capability against a problem in short bursts to really help others who are in dire need," he said.