Liberation of Kosovo: Clinton visit - Kosovars hail the conquering hero

Kim Sengupta
Tuesday 22 June 1999 23:02

SERBIA WAS defeated, Kosovo liberated and President Bill Clinton, commander in chief and conquering hero, received the homage to the victor on his visit to Macedonia yesterday.

Choking back tears, Mr Clinton ran a gauntlet of refugees' hugs, kisses and tales of horror during a stage-managed visit to the infamous tent city of Stenkovic I on the border with Kosovo. Chanting "USA, USA" and "Clinton, Clinton", thousands of Kosovars gave him hero's welcome.

It was a sweet moment for him to savour after being attacked for his refusal to prosecute a ground war against President Slobodan Milosevic, and baited throughout his presidency for dodging the draft during the Vietnam war.

The tour began with a family-to-family visit before Mr Clinton addressed the crowds. Mr Clinton, his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea walked through the muddy camp, stopping to chat with families in their spartan tents. One woman told them her family had left their home more than three months ago and had spent two weeks in a Kosovo village where she said 60 people been massacred by Serb forces.

Holding a two-year-old boy on his lap, Mr Clinton said: "We hope with each passing day you will become less afraid. You have a beautiful boy."

"He is still very much afraid," the woman replied. "He has suffered very much. He has seen people killed and wounded."

"There are some things children should never see," the President answered.

Mr Clinton broke into smiles when excited children mobbed him but he appeared to choke back tears each time a refugee engaged him in conversation.

"You have suffered enough," Mr Clinton, clad in khaki trousers, a green shirt and hiking boots, told the refugees. "I don't want any child hurt. I don't want anyone else to lose a leg or an arm or a child because of a landmine, so I ask you please be patient with us," he said.

There is little doubt that for the dispossessed of Kosovo the admiration of Mr Clinton was genuine. And it was extended without reserve to his wife and daughter. Wherever they went, the Clintons were swept along on a tide of ecstatic people. The whole population of the camp, down to 10,000 from a peak of more than 60,000, seemed to have turned out for them. The Clintons were surrounded by excited children, some of whom had letters spelling out "Clinton" on their T-shirts. Other little boys and girls hung on their arms.

As a thousand cameras whirred into action, Mrs Clinton told the crowds of her delight at visiting the camp for the second time. Then she introduced her husband.

Gripping a microphone on a stage of army crates and plywood, with Apache helicopter gunships circling overhead, Mr Clinton urged the refugees to be patient before returning home. Thousands of refugees have already left the camps.

Because of the angle of the television cameras, a giant Star of David, representing an Israeli charity, dominated the background.

The President thanked the people of the camp for "sharing their lives with him and his family and said they in turn were "honoured to be there". He then talked about the children of Kosovo, the fractured lives and the need to rebuild their future, and the future of their country.

"We are proud of what we did. We think it's what America stands for. No one should ever, ever be punished or discriminated against, killed or uprooted because of their religion or ethnic background.

"We are committed not only to making Kosovo safe, but in helping people rebuild their lives and rebuild their country and then to rebuild Kosovo."

President Clinton acknowledged that: "America did not act alone. All of our Nato allies felt the same way."

Beyond the schmaltz, the soundbites and the photo opportunities there were the instances which reminded of the pain and desolation present in these camps. A girl repeatedly hugged Mr Clinton and wept. Some of those present laughed, thinking she was star-struck and hysterical. In fact, Albana Krasnica is a 14-year-old who has lost her parents. She was at school in Dranica in Kosovo when Serbian soldiers went to her home and took away her parents. After fruitlessly searching for them for weeks, she and her brother Uran, who is 16, are in the vulnerable person's unit at the camp.

Albana told the President what had happened to her and he said how very sorry he was.

Mrs Clinton has been among a string of public figures to visit Stenkovic 1, others include Tony and Cherie Blair, Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, Kofi Anan, UN Secretary-General, and actors Richard Gere and Vanessa Redgrave.

During a previous visit Mrs Clinton was told about a factory in Macedonia about to go bankrupt, threatening the jobs of 300 people. She promised to do something and asked the fashion designer Liz Clayborne to help. Ms Clayborne is to donate fabrics and manufacturing components. More than 200,000 refugees will now receive designer clothing.

Some of the charity workers at the camp were bemused by the news. One said: "There may be a water shortage and diseases breaking out but at least these people will be fashionably clothed."

The President, meanwhile,has been discussing larger scale aid. He held meetings with the Presidents of Albania and Macedonia, the two front- line states which have taken in hundreds of thousands of a Kosovar refugees, to discuss bilateral aid.

Many Macedonian leaders are bitter that the country's role in the crisis has not been properly acknowledged, and Macedonia has not received promised injections of money from the West.

After a final round of handshakes and hugs, the Clintons and their entourage left. Ed Joseph of the Catholic Relief Services and Aurvani Patel, of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, who help run the camps, said the visit had been highly successful and the massive show of support was spontaneous. As darkness fell the refugees were once again settling back to their grim life in the mud, and an uncertain future.

Many of them have lost members of their family, or do not know what has happened to them. Their homes in Kosovo may have been destroyed by the Serbs and they will have to get back to them through roads filled with mines and boobytraps. But they are glad Mr Clinton came.

Ibrahim Bashi, whose brother was killed by Serbian paramilitaries and says he has lost everything, looked on as the presidential convoy swung out and said: "We have known nothing but fear and crime for so long and now we have something to celebrate. It was Nato who did it and he is one of their chief leaders, isn't he? So I shall honour him."

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