Human crisis brought home

Baltimore charity struggles to assist refugees in Macedonia

April 06, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BLACE, Macedonia -- Mehmeti Jetula button-holed Bishop John H. Ricard on the dusty roadside here yesterday, an old man speaking for the 70,000 Albanian Kosovars spread out on the slope behind him, penned in for days now on a muddy bend of a river where Macedonia and Yugoslavia come together.

The din rising from the sprawling camp was incessant. Babies wailed, people whistled piercingly, others screamed.

While volunteers threw bananas and water bottles from tractor-drawn carts, crowds surged around shouting and reaching out.

Two people shook out a blanket near someone defecating in the open. The rust-brown plastic sheeting that had been fashioned into tents gave the whole seething vista an earthen, medieval hue.

"Thank you for the food," Jetula told the chairman of Catholic Relief Services, which is headquartered in Baltimore. "But everything else is a disaster, misery."

Police wearing surgical masks ringed the camp. Some shouted at refugees. Others sat on camp stools, their feet up, taking in the view before them.

"The hopelessness," Ricard murmured. "The helplessness."

Ricard and Ken Hackett, executive director of Catholic Relief Services, had just arrived in Macedonia to see how the agency was coping with what is at the moment the world's biggest human disaster.

Ricard, until March the urban vicar of Baltimore, is now bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in Florida.

To be sure, there was progress yesterday. New camps, hastily flung up by British troops in the preceding 18 hours, took in refugees as they began to be released from the Blace encampment.

But what was supposed to be an orderly process threatened by the end of the day to become a flood. Hundreds of thousands of field rations were made available by NATO armies -- but that was only enough to last for about 36 hours. And thousands more refugees were said to be backed up in Yugoslavia, waiting to cross over.

"It's going to be like this for the next six weeks," said Judy Chen, the CRS project manager for Macedonia. "As quickly as people leave, new ones will be coming in."

Ricard learned about the new camps and the aid pipelines and the heroic efforts of the CRS staff. But nothing could bring home the human toll as effectively as the man who came up to him and said his baby daughter needed to see a doctor.

Ricard found a physician from Doctors Without Borders and pulled him over. The doctor, who appeared to be utterly exhausted, could see the baby was feverish. He couldn't wake her. He twitched her ear and still couldn't wake her. He told the desperate parents that she could probably be saved -- that in a normal hospital she could be saved without question. Then, miraculously, he persuaded the police to let the parents accompany their baby to the Red Cross tent across the road from the camp. It was strictly against the rules.

Ricard had been forewarned by Nick Ford, a 30-year-old wanderer and CRS veteran from Jamesville, Ohio, whose job it is to oversee the CRS role in the three camps where the agency has agreed to be responsible for distributing food and hygiene supplies. "Are they prepared for a major outbreak?" Ricard had asked him before going in to the camp.

"Medical help is very limited," Ford replied.

It was a typically direct answer except that Ford had cleaned up his language in front of the bishop. All day long he had been cruising northern Macedonia, cursing amid the chaos of a not-very-distant war that has sent 30 aid agencies tumbling out of Kosovo and into the Macedonian capital of Skopje, trying to get a handle on the influx of 115,000 refugees expelled in this direction by the Serbs.

Ford himself was part of this tide, having been project manager in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, where he was running a $35 million aid program. But CRS is one of just two American relief organizations that were in Skopje before the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia began March 24, and now it's playing one of the lead roles here.

CRS staff from Pristina, Belgrade and Montenegro have reassembled in Skopje, expanding the staff from 17 to about 50. Some of the local staffers in the Kosovo offices were in the crowd at Blace, and every day a few more trickle through.

Ford started out the day at the camp at Brazda, where reassuringly efficient British officers briefed him on what they were doing. Overnight they had turned an airstrip into a camp for 10,000 people, with more than 700 exactly positioned tents. A water filtration unit was being set up on a bordering stream, with a capacity of 150,000 liters a day.

Across the road, a separate reception camp had been set up, which was to feed Brazda and the other so-called transit camps.

While they were talking, the owners of the airfield came by; it was the first they had heard of the camp being built on their property.

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