Gitmo's On Call to Support Kosovar Refugees
By Maj. Donna Miles, USAR, and JOC Walter T. Ham IV
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 21, 1999 By many accounts, Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has gotten a bum rap.
When the United States announced plans to house 20,000 Kosovar refugees at "Gitmo" in a mission dubbed Operation Sustain Hope, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and some U.S. refugee organizations squawked, likening the base to a detention camp.
As it turned out, the United States shelved the whole idea for now, though not because conditions at Guantanamo were somehow not up to snuff. Army Lt. Gen. Mike McDuffie, director of logistics for the Joint Staff, said two factors sidelined the plan: The refugee situation in the Balkans began to stabilize, and the refugees just didn't want to be sent 4,500 miles from home, safe haven or no.
McDuffie did not rule out the possibility that Gitmo could be used at a later time in connection with Operation Allied Force. "Guantanamo Bay is always there and has the capability to take in refugees," he said. "If we still need to do that, we can always do that."
It wouldn't be the first time. The United States used Guantanamo as an offshore holding station during the 1991 Haitian migrant crisis that eventually led to the ouster of the military dictatorship there. The base housed as many as 51,000 Cuban and Haitian migrants and asylum seekers from 1994 to 1996 during Operation Sea Signal.
Although the military dismantled the Gitmo tent camp in 1996, the base still has wood pallets, tents and frames to house 10,000 people -- plus the infrastructure to hook up water, electricity and sanitation facilities for 50,000.
When word came that the Caribbean base might host thousands of guests, the base sprang to life. Within hours, the entire community of 3,500, including sailors, Marines and civilian workers, began preparations to rebuild the 1996 encampment.
Within 48 hours, 102 Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74, Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, had erected 70 tents and provided electric power and sewage treatment for the first 500 anticipated arrivals.
Plans were drawn for refugees' medical treatment, recreation, group meetings and worship, and to ready the camp's large, modern kitchen facility for use. The base was ready to welcome the refugees and to make them as comfortable as the circumstances permitted.
"The outpouring of community support and human compassion has been overwhelming, heartwarming," said Capt. Larry Larson, base commander. More than 200 family members volunteered their services to the local Red Cross chapter to assist with the Kosovars' arrival. Families donated more than 65 sorted boxes of clothing and 35 boxes of toys to the Red Cross to support the operation.
"We started receiving donations before we even advertised a requirement," said Barbara Green, director of the base Red Cross chapter. "The team on this base really wants to help take care of these people. I have never seen this type of response before."
Although the United States later decided to establish a refugee camp in Albania, Guantanamo's effort was not for naught, said Cmdr. Steve Lowry, deputy public affairs officer for the commander in chief of Atlantic Fleet. The frenzy of activity tested the plans the base put into place as lessons learned from past refugee crises.
"All these plans, with very little dusting off and very little tailoring could be used for any number of contingency operations," Lowry said.
Such contingencies are possible, because refugees have played a central role in many recent regional conflicts. Last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were 12,000 refugees around the world, as well as 1 million asylum seekers, 3.5 million recently returned refugees and millions more displaced persons within their own countries.
The NATO allies believe the Kosovar refugee situation is under control. Gitmo is on standby nonetheless.
"We are certainly ready if needed," Larson said.
[JOC Walter T. Ham IV is assigned to Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.]