War in the Balkans: The Refuge - Cuban prison camp has McDonald's and golf course

Click to follow
The Independent Online
INTENSIVE PREPARATIONS were being made yesterday for the arrival of up to 20,000 Kosovars at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay on the south-eastern corner of the island of Cuba. Tent cities were being set up, sanitation arranged and food ordered.

If large numbers of displaced and destitute Kosovars found the prospect of an airlift unappealing, even to nearby Turkey, their feelings on being told that they were to be transported to a US military base halfway across the world can only be imagined. Even some Americans were expressing misgivings on their behalf.

Political misgivings - that the further the refugees were from home, the less likely they were to return, and the more likely the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, would succeed with his "ethnic cleansing" - were only the half of it. And while a small number of Americans said openly that the United States was playing host to enough immigrants already without giving even temporary refuge to Kosovars, the more vocal majority objected to the very idea of Guantanamo Bay.

Displaced people were being moved to a completely different time and climate zone, into a base at the edge of an island associated with one of the last Communist regimes - of the sort they have just fled. The territory has been in US hands for the best part of the century: it was ceded to the US on an unlimited lease in 1903 after the Spanish-American war, and the US pays about $4,000 (pounds 2,500) in rent to Cuba each year.

Only 45sq miles in area, it is surrounded by high metal fences festooned in barbed wire, and resembles - in the words of one critic - a "low- security prison". It does have a McDonald's, a 9-hole golf course, a school, shops and medical facilities. But it is still a confined and fortified place.

The last time it provided refuge was four years ago, when it housed up to 50,000 Haitians and Cubans. Most of the Haitians have returned home; the Cubans have mainly been resettled in the US. But the facilities have been either dismantled or fallen into disrepair - hence this week's frantic activity.

The accommodation will consist partly of pre-fab barracks, but mainly of tents. Sanitation will be primitive. There will be no work, no fraternisation outside the base (that is, after all, Cuba). If Haitians and Cubans became bored and disorderly as the months passed, Kosovars used to living in Europe - albeit in one of its poorest areas - are likely to be even less content. The head of the group co-ordinating the effort, Bruce Atwood of the US Agency for International Development, says that he expects the arrangement to be temporary, but such arrangements have a habit of lasting.

For Cubans confined at Guantanamo, there was an incentive to stick it out - as the first rite of initiation into their future in the US. The prime concern of most Kosovars, however, is to return home. After initial relief at the safety and order likely to prevail at Guantanamo, they could find themselves chafing under the regulation and discipline America requires of its charges.