WAR IN THE BALKANS:Hillary joins celebrity war zone tours

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The Independent Online
AS THE crow flies, she was only four miles from Kosovo. As the B-52 bomber speeds, she was only a few minutes from the village of Korisa, where Nato warplanes were accused of killing about a hundred civilians a few hours earlier.

But Hillary Clinton did not talk of the latest dead or wounded when she toured this camp in northern Macedonia yesterday. Perhaps she had not yet been informed. Instead, she referred to past atrocities, notably those carried out by Adolf Hitler and Slobodan Milosevic, comparing the Yugoslav leader's "ethnic cleansing" to the Holocaust.

"I don't know how many of you saw Schindler's List or Sophie's Choice," she told more than 100 media representatives after chatting with Kosovo Albanian refugees. "At the end of this violent century, you'd think we should have learnt something."

Comparing the Kosovo crisis to the Holocaust is a theme her husband had been pushing increasingly. She had just spoken to a 42-year-old Kosovo Albanian housewife, who described how she had been separated from her husband and three children in late March while Serb police herded women on to trains to Macedonia.

"Think about those trains," said America's First Lady, looking chic in a baggy black linen trouser suit and an open-necked white shirt. "We all know what it's like, holding on to a little hand and then you lose it. But this was a mass of humanity and she has no idea where they are."

Just before she arrived, we heard half a dozen booms from across the hills that lead to Kosovo. Nato planes, it seemed, were hammering targets just across the border, oblivious to the proximity of the wife of the world's most powerful man.

It sounded like rolling thunder, an eerie sound on a scorching late morning under a cloudless sky. Not a few hardened journalists shuddered. The refugees did not flinch. They had heard too many bangs, too many times, and a lot closer than this. Even as Mrs Clinton sat cross-legged on a mattress to speak to refugees, others were boarding buses a few yards away headed for faraway places, including the US, to start what increasingly looks likely to be a new life.

It seemed odd to see buses marked "Canada" or "USA." They were to take the refugees to Skopje airport and on to destinations that appear likely to be final.

Mrs Clinton was the latest in a string of celebrities to visit the refugee camps. Most, if not all, are well-meaning but most, if not all, are equally well aware of the beneficial publicity. First was the actor Richard Gere, demonstrating Buddhist love towards the Muslim refugees at first hand. This week, we saw Vanessa Redgrave, Bianca Jagger and Roger Moore, who, had he understood Albanian, might have tired of hearing the recurring negative comparisons with Sean Connery. Even in the Balkan countryside, it seems, there will always be only one James Bond.

Few refugees had heard of Ms Redgrave but she was greeted with respect when the word spread that she had tried to help Kosovo long before the Nato bombing began. Ms Jagger, a young Nicaraguan earthquake victim when the rock star met her in the Seventies, walked from tent to tent handing out loaves of bread from the Rome-based World Food Programme, and telling each refugee: "This is a symbol of friendship from a Christian like me to a Muslim like you."

Mrs Clinton was clearly sincerely concerned for the refugees' flight. She picked up children, patted old ladies' shoulders and asked specific questions to understand better, she said, what had befallen them. She appeared to want to hug them but always held back, presumably wary of media criticism that she had gone too far along the photo-op road.

She said: "The reason I came here is to tell you that we are working very hard to get you back home." The refugees listened respectfully but not a single one showed any sign of believing her.