Arab hospitality in a sea of chaos

Model refugee camp eschews U.N. control, gives caring service

April 28, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUKES, Albania -- A woman who watched as Serbian police slit her husband's throat. A man who was hung by his hands for a day or more. A woman who sobs and won't say why.

They would be just three more people who've come over the mountains out of Kosovo and into Kukes, except for one thing -- they've landed in a field hospital that is part of an astonishingly well-equipped camp set up by the United Arab Emirates.

The people who run the camp have opted to stay outside the purview of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the settlement they've put up here practically gleams.

The tents have electricity and stoves. Gravel paths run between them. There are showers with hot and cold running water. The bread is fresh, and the camp provides its residents with the food they have asked for rather than the universally disliked U.S. Meals Ready to Eat (MREs).

And there is the hospital, with 11 doctors and more than 30 nurses, and beds for 200.

"We have to provide the best service for these refugees, because they have all been traumatized," Dr. Saeed Albloushi, an internist, said yesterday.

The doctors -- like doctors at all the camps -- see a great deal of diarrhea and dehydration among children and exhaustion among adults. But the emotional stress they also see has persuaded them to hire a local psychiatrist to join the team.

They're starting to get referrals from other camps -- even from the Italian camp, where standards are high and which is also outside the UNHCR system.

At all the camps here, clothing has become the single most pressing need, because most of the refugees escaped with what they had on and nothing else. Diapers and soap also are in desperately short supply.

But the psychological needs of the refugees after what they've been through are getting scarce attention, and the chaotic atmosphere of most of the camps doesn't help.

This may be the Emirates camp's strongest suit -- not only a psychiatric ward in the field hospital, but a structured and relatively comfortable environment for the other refugees as well.

Shefirie Arifi moved to the camp five days ago from another near the center of Kukes. "We were living on the mud. It was wet there, and we had very little food. It's so different here. We're OK. We're happy."

Albloushi said one sick man told him he was Catholic and not Muslim, and asked whether he would be allowed to enter.

"Don't even think about such things," Albloushi replied, and the man settled in.

At other camps, conditions are still elemental.

At one, run by Doctors Without Borders, with food handled by an Irish group called Goal, unhappy refugees grew hostile Monday as rain deepened the mud and workers still had little but MREs to distribute. A truck bringing food got stuck in the mud near the main road.

"It was a disaster of a day," said Rod McAuliffe, an Irish army officer who has been detached to work with Goal for six weeks.

Even though the sun came out yesterday for the first time in days, the camp was still deep in mud. Volunteers were moving the distribution tent closer to the road in case a truck gets stuck again.

Damp clothes were set out on the tops of tents to dry while women tried to heat water for washing over little fires of scrap lumber.

`Maybe they're dead'

It was not the kind of place that would be conducive to recovery from psychological trauma.

Here lives Hanife Spahia, who saw her two grown sons taken away by Serbian police in Srbica. "I'm afraid they have nothing to eat," she said. "Maybe they've been shot. Maybe they're dead."

Here, too, is Myrvete Krasniqi, a 14-year-old from a village named Demiah, near Dakovica. Three weeks ago she was forced out of her house and taken with other women and children to the bottom of a slope. The men were taken to the top.

"We only heard the shooting," she said. "But when we walked back up we had to walk through their blood, and we saw the bodies. There were 17. They fell with their heads in the water on the ground."

None was a relative of hers, but she knew them all.

It is a month since the refugees began to flood into Kukes, and almost all the camps here are still marked by disorder and chaos.

"We need clothes, we need sheets, we need soap," said Krasniqi.

The problems, of course, were immense. No one anticipated the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo. Kukes is eight hours by terrible mountain roads from Tirana, which is probably the poorest capital in Europe. It has been one of the rainiest Aprils in memory.

The influx of refugees, said Martin Notley of the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, "completely and utterly destroyed what little infrastructure there was."

But aid workers here believe the job could have been done better.

The registration effort was flawed, refugees have been moved among camps three and four times, bread still is being trucked from Tirana -- which means it's three days old by the time it's eaten.

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