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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

American Kosovo Monitor Changes His Image

Diplomacy: William Walker, once criticized for his inaction in El Salvador, is treated like a hero by ethnic Albanian refugees.

April 14, 1999|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRAZDA, Macedonia — The U.S. diplomat, wearing a windbreaker and brown corduroys, walked into a Kosovo Albanian refugee camp the other day and was greeted with applause, bearhugs and the chant: "Walker! Walker!"

The outpouring was a tonic for William Walker, who headed an international monitoring mission in Kosovo for six months and exposed the brutality of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's troops to ethnic Albanian civilians.

"I now know what intoxicates Fidel Castro when the crowd yells, 'Fidel! Fidel,' " the 63-year-old career foreign service officer said in an interview after visiting refugee camps in Macedonia. "It was moving."

Walker earned the ethnic Albanians' affection by putting a spotlight on Serbian actions in Kosovo before the world was paying much attention--and, famously, for accusing Serbian security forces of killing 45 people in the village of Racak in January, and for labeling their act a massacre.

"The people love him because he risked his life to come to a dangerous place like Kosovo and help the people and tell the Americans and the European community the truth," said Enver Vrajolli, a refugee from Kosovo who was thrilled to see Walker in Macedonia. "I think he's a strong man with a big heart."

Reputation Suffered After El Salvador Killings

This reputation as a crusader for human rights represents quite a change for Walker. His tenure as ambassador to El Salvador during its civil war was clouded by his failure to point the finger at government security forces for killing six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989. He was accused of helping cover up for the Salvadoran government, which Washington was backing in the war.

Walker's friends say he hopes that his performance in the Balkans will help him clean the slate--and perhaps win him another ambassador posting.

But as he rode to refugee camps in his bright orange armored Suburban on Sunday, Walker had his eyes on another honor.

"My one goal in life is to be with the Glenn Fords of the world on the honor roll of famous graduates of Santa Monica High School," Walker said.

Walker may not make his 45th reunion this June: His team is eager to get back into Kosovo, but it will have to wait until the fighting in Yugoslavia ends.

In the meantime, officials with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe--which is in charge of the Kosovo monitoring team--are supporting the relief efforts in Macedonia and Albania, and collecting information from refugees to assess the ongoing atrocities in Kosovo.

When he entered the Radusha camp, which has the worst conditions of any camp in Macedonia, for the first time, the weary refugees rushed to see him. Their faces brightened, and they applauded him. A cluster of people followed him as he made his way around the camp, talking to refugees and giving brief interviews to journalists.

Later in the day, when his entourage stopped at another camp, his personal assistant tried to direct him through a back way into a tent where a small number of refugees were waiting to be registered for evacuation flights to Germany. Walker resisted, circling around the front of the registration tents so he could show his face to the long line of refugees waiting outside.

The crowd burst into applause, and, as a few people chanted his name, one man approached him, gave him a big hug and kissed his hand.

A member of his staff grumbled about Walker's love of the spotlight, but Walker put a more positive spin on what motivates him.

"There's a reason why when I go into camps [that] people start chanting 'Walker! Walker Walker!': I symbolize something to the Albanian community in Kosovo, which was this international effort to protect them from the government security forces," Walker said.

By showing up in the camps, where refugees have no access to newspapers or television, Walker said, he is communicating the continued commitment that the international community has to them and their return to their homeland.

He employed a similar tactic in Kosovo. Rather than sending others, he showed up in villages when there was trouble. With his affable, no-airs manner, Walker impressed the people of the province as someone who cared about their suffering.

Walker had the OSCE's vehicles painted a showy orange to send a similar message of hope to the innocent--but also one of determined menace to the security forces terrorizing Kosovo.

"Our little orange wagons were seen as a protective screen by Albanians, and they increasingly became seen as a danger to government control," he said.

"All Albanians are grateful to him, even small children," said Imer Jashari, 41, who was wearing a UCLA T-shirt. Walker, who studied art at UCLA before studying architecture at USC, selected Jashari from the crowd to register him for possible evacuation to Germany.

Walker tried to encourage the refugees, telling them that they would return to Kosovo, and so would he.

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