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Refugee Camps in Albania Test Relief Workers' Mettle

Balkans: Despite bleak conditions, bureaucracy and bouts of loneliness, they say their miseries don't rival Kosovars'.


KUKES, Albania — It was midday, and the back of Michael Courson's hand was covered with black ink.

Near his knuckles, he had scrawled the word "tent," a reminder that a refugee family in this camp, which he helps oversee, needed better shelter. Farther down, he had written "trash east," which referred to the growing mound of garbage on the eastern end of the field that is now home to 117 ethnic Albanian families from Kosovo.

There were other words too: The last one, "clothing," he put near his wrist after an elderly woman stopped him, pointed to her grubby dress and in rapid-fire Albanian asked him if he could find another.

By nightfall, every line of ink had been rubbed away. And Courson was chugging a beer at Bar Amerika, where a sheep's head and fries cost $5 and the relief workers stationed on the front lines of the Kosovo refugee crisis unwind.

Their days can be frustrating, depressing, lonely and downright insufferable. Here in Kukes, aid workers are adapting to incredibly bland food, no toilets (only small holes in the ground), and a sense of isolation caused by a temperamental telephone system that has trouble with international calls and by deteriorated mountain roads that turn the 110-mile drive to Tirana, the Albanian capital, into a daylong thrill ride.

"I'm a minimalist, and I've lived in the country most of my life," said Courson, a 47-year-old bohemian from rural Northern California on his first relief trip. "I'm fine not having much. But I didn't think I'd be so isolated here. This is pretty out there."

Christina Moore, a Connecticut psychologist on her first relief effort for Doctors Without Borders, said she finds herself slipping into her counselor mode when she speaks with fellow relief workers.

"This isn't for most people," she said. "The intensity of experiences, the intensity of relationships, are extreme. People say that when they do this they feel very alive. It certainly puts life into perspective. It's like being hit over the head with a 2-by-4."

But no matter how grim the workers' struggles, they do not rival the miseries endured by the hundreds of thousands of people expelled from their homes in Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia. Helping the refugees get solid footing again is a full-time job.

"If you feel like you're having a bad day, you think about the family of 12 you saw in the wagon with plastic sheeting over them," said Courson, who is on assignment for Los Angeles-based Relief International, the organization that runs this camp.

When refugees tell him how Yugoslav gunmen ordered them from their homes, Courson thinks of how he might react if displaced from his plot of land in southern Humboldt County.

"As a rural person myself, I know what it's like to be attached to your land," he said. "That's the most devastating thing I can imagine that could happen to me--to lose my land, my homestead, my garden. Basically, that's my life's work."

While Courson is a neophyte when it comes to relief work, the turmoil that refugees here endure touches even the veterans.

"I'm absolutely distraught by the time evening comes," said Peter Pueschel, a German physician on a five-week tour in Albania for a German-based group called Cap Anamur. "I go and drink a beer and try to clear my mind."

But after extensive assignments in Africa, he cannot seem to get enough of this work. "The people in Germany have good medical help already," he said. "The people in these other places don't."

Still, the headaches that aid workers face are many: Bureaucracy rules, problems abound, and sometimes humanitarianism can look rather ugly.

When refugees first arrive in Albania, aid workers are at the border to greet them with food, water and medical attention, as well as a ride to a camp. Sometimes, however, the process displays all the sensitivity of a cattle drive.

At a tent city set up by the United Arab Emirates, refugees recently were forced to stay in enclosed trucks in the hot sun until camp workers were ready for them.

When refugees climbed down from the trucks, armed emirate soldiers on duty at the camp forced them back. Only after a woman vomited did the camp workers decide that the refugees needed air.

Before assistance can be delivered, there also must be meetings, meetings and more meetings, overseen by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The coordination is cumbersome but essential, especially to smooth out turf battles among two dozen occasionally publicity-hungry relief organizations roaring around Kukes' refugee camps in Land Rovers and other four-wheel-drive vehicles.

"Some things get real frustrating," said Courson, who specializes in water and sanitation projects. "You get here, and you don't know the language, and there's all these layers of bureaucracy set up. Before you can get started, you have to cut through red tape."

Even then, not everything always goes according to plan.

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