Refugees from Central Europe

April 07, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Not since the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 unleashed more than 200,000 refugees on the West has there been a humanitarian resettlement crisis in Central Europe of the dimensions of the current Kosovo exodus.

Then, a seller's market prevailed in the first weeks of that tragedy. The cream of the Hungarian intellectual and professional community was skimmed by the flight of thousands of highly educated doctors, scientists and academics from the Soviet Union's repression of an uprising against its puppet state in Budapest.

Western countries, and the United States particularly, feeling guilt for having stirred up hopes of military intervention and then failing to deliver, opened their doors to the Hungarian refugees.

Competition for best

A competition developed for the "best" of them -- that is, the most skilled and best trained of the lot -- and the United States got the lion's share. In all, about 38,000 Hungarians were admitted here and about $71 million in U.S. humanitarian aid was doled out.

In light of the failed revolution, there was little expectation that the Hungarian refugees would or could return to their country, and the focus then was on permanent resettlement. The U.S. armed forces airlifted thousands daily from Austria, to which most of the refugees had fled, to a relocation center in New Jersey, and on to scores of American communities eager to accept them.

The Hungarian resettlement story became another of the proud sagas of America as haven, as the 1956 refugees were swiftly integrated into American life and for the most part became loyal and committed citizens.

Many thousands more -- the elderly, ill or otherwise "undesirable" -- were shipped to camps in Austria and Italy, where they languished for years, a human residue living in deplorable conditions, some in abandoned Nazi concentration camps in Austria.

Temporary dislocation

This time around, the early plans are for only temporary resettlement of the Kosovo refugees in receiving Western countries. According to Secretary of Defense William Cohen, the United States is thinking of airlifting 20,000 of them to American military bases in such far-flung places as Guam and Guantanamo Bay.

With the latest commitment, through NATO, to reverse Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and return the refugees to their homeland, there is an antiseptic tone to the whole business.

It's as if all this can be achieved without undue dislocation not only of the refugees but of their intended temporary hosts. Dumping the ethnic Albanians in Guantanamo and Guam smacks of trying to wash dirty dishes without getting your hands wet.

Unlike the Hungarian situation of 43 years ago, when the United States bowed to the reality of Soviet power in Budapest and settled for a humanitarian reaction to the refugee flow, this time the American policy-makers (in the post-Cold-War world of only one superpower) are talking of rolling back the oppressing forces.

The idea apparently is to scoop up the Kosovo refugees and put them in a holding room until the present untidy mess can be cleaned up and they can be sent back home.

Understanding crisis

Did President Clinton, who felt the need two weeks ago to tell the American people "to get down an atlas" to see where he planned to commit American power and lives, understand that the crisis could come to this?

His leadership so far does not inspire confidence. Already his promise not to send ground troops into Yugoslavia is imperiled by the realities of the situation and the bold talk of reversing the ethnic cleansing.

In Hungary in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was staring a nuclear power in the face when he opted against rolling back the Soviet invasion. This time around, Mr. Clinton, for all the comparisons of Slobodan Milosevic with Hitler, is facing only a bush-league dictator. And the president famed for his glib tongue is finding out that he can't always talk his way out of a tight spot.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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