Clinton Offers Support to Refugees During Tour of Camp

Share via

Inside the barbed-wire perimeter of a Rhine Valley refugee camp, President Clinton tried Thursday to provide solace, and at least a glimmer of hope, to several hundred Kosovo Albanians driven from their homeland.

After hearing their horror stories, a clearly moved Clinton promised that he will help ensure their eventual repatriation. Then he sought to lift their spirits by evoking the image of a happy new world for them and their children in a peaceful Kosovo.

“You will go home again--in safety and in freedom,” the president said, imploring them in the meantime to “not let your hearts turn to stone.”


Earlier, in this bucolic, cloud-enshrouded town near Frankfurt, several refugees wept openly as they tried to describe to Clinton their forced march out of Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic--and the atrocities committed by forces loyal to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

At one point, Clinton, accompanied by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, visited with a family of nine in its spartan, dormitory-style quarters. Tears welled in the president’s eyes when he heard one refugee’s account of the brutal exodus.

“My home was burned. We were beaten. Everything was stolen from us,” said Sabit Salihu, 60, a short, compact man with beard stubble and a beret. “The mother of my wife was massacred. The son of her brother was massacred.”


Salihu began to weep. “It’s impossible to describe what they have done to us,” he said through an interpreter. “It’s impossible to describe.”

Afterward, Clinton addressed all the camp’s refugees, who were assembled in an open lawn area.

He said his visit was meant to spotlight “the heartbreak, the nightmare, the cruelty, the uncertainty” experienced by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, many of whom have been separated from loved ones whose whereabouts or fates they do not know.


“I listened very carefully to all of you,” Clinton said. “The world will hear your stories.”

For a month now, 334 refugees, including 144 children, have been living in the 10-building compound here, once a youth detention center. It will be their home for the foreseeable future.

The refugees feel so strongly about returning to Kosovo that they do not want to move in with German families. Instead, they have coalesced into a community intent on staying together until they can go home en masse, officials said.

“These people love their land, and they want to go back, even if it is rubble,” Assistant Secretary of State Julia Taft said earlier this week about the displaced ethnic Albanians.

Many Kosovo refugees interviewed in Macedonia and Albania for possible relocation to the United States share that sentiment, she said.

The refugee center here has three dormitory-style residential buildings, a recreation room with a television, an outdoor playground for children and a kindergarten.


While expressing gratitude for their temporary haven, refugees nevertheless described a monotonous daily routine of playing board games, reading newspapers, smoking cigarettes and talking with other refugees.

Clinton told the refugees that computer terminals are being installed in this and other relocation centers “so that you can constantly get news in your own language on the situation in Kosovo and the status of the NATO campaign.”

As he does in nearly every speech concerning Kosovo, the president lashed out at Milosevic and his campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” while making the case for continuing the allied air war against Yugoslavia.

“It is important that people not forget what is called ethnic cleansing is not some abstract idea. It is real people with real families and real dreams being uprooted from their homes, their schools, their work, their children, their parents, their husbands and wives,” Clinton said. “We believe ethnic cleansing must be opposed, resisted, reversed.”

At every turn, Clinton encountered anguish.

One young man told him: “We were robbed of everything. . . . At the end, they took away the little freedom that we had.

“I’m young,” he said, “but my life is broken from what I’ve seen.”

In his remarks to the assembled refugees, Clinton tried to address that mind-set.

“When you have gone through something as awful as this, it is very easy to have your spirit broken, to spend the rest of your life obsessed with anger and resentment,” Clinton said. “But if you do that, you have already given those who oppressed you a victory.”


Then he quoted the Irish poet William Butler Yeats:

“Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”

Rather than lapse into despair or hatred, the refugees, Clinton urged, should envision a day when “all the children can laugh and play. . . . A future that is not only free of the bad things that have happened to you, but is full of hope and opportunity, where you’re a part of Europe and a free world, where all the children can pursue their faith, their religion and their dreams. We are working hard for that day.”

Clinton’s remarks appeared to move many of the refugees.

“You understood us and you understood our pain,” one said. “And even if we die, the dying would be easier because we know that somebody knows what we’re going through.”