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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Marines Bring Hope to Tent Camp

May 15, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FIER, Albania — As helicopters roared into Camp Hope on Friday to disgorge camouflage-clad troops, 11-year-old Zoni Shosi ran away in terror. He dived into a tent for cover and trembled at the memory of the Yugoslav military's aerial strafing of his village in Kosovo.

But the choppers hovering over the dusty refugee camp were blasting only wind from their rotors, and the U.S. Marines descending on the parched terrain had come to protect the exhausted Kosovo Albanians. It's a role for uniformed forces that will take some adjustment for refugee children who have spent years on the wrong end of Yugoslav soldiers' guns.

Members of Shosi's family and 400 other Kosovo refugees were the first to settle into the U.S.-built tent city here that has begun to offer food, shelter and safety for victims of Yugoslavia's campaign to expel ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

And aside from the bare necessities of survival being provided by the United States' first refugee camp in the shattered Balkans, this corner of Americana on the scorching flatland of central Albania will provide a forum for the next generation of Kosovo Albanians to learn that armies are supposed to be on their side.

"He can see now that soldiers are not all killers, that in normal countries they are there to help and protect people," said Masar Shosi, the boy's uncle, who came to Albania from Germany a few days ago to see the family safely settled while awaiting the end of the war. "For this I am grateful to America. Food and shelter are important, but seeing the world the way it should be is essential if these kids are ever to recover from what they've seen."

In a scene reminiscent of the U.S. Army's post-World War II occupation of Germany, the Marines of Operation Shining Hope transformed themselves within a few short hours from sources of deep suspicion among the children around them to fascinating fonts of wisdom and candy.

"This is a nice opportunity to give them a positive outlook," 2nd Lt. Thomas Catuogno of New York said as he stood guard at the camp entrance, surrounded by children he was impressing with his knowledge of Italian. "All they've ever seen of soldiers to this point is guys with guns making trouble."

While Camp Hope offers a needed respite for the latest refugees to escape Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia, the site of the U.S. humanitarian mission leaves much to be desired.

Temperatures are already in the 80s, with summer yet to come, and water is in such short supply that tankers and bottles of it must be flown in or trucked to the site.

Camp Hope was built under U.S. military contract on this bleak plain 35 miles south of Tirana, the Albanian capital, because it was one of the few available sites owned by the Albanian government that is large enough to handle the expected capacity of 20,000, said Chris Sykes, camp coordinator from CARE International.

The aid agency and U.S. government contractors are drilling wells in hopes of locating enough water to sustain the camp and two others planned nearby.

Other concerns of aid agencies are the cost and complexity of having to prepare 1,700 tents for winter if the Kosovo conflict drags on, and the troubling proximity of Albanian mafia dons, who have made the city of Fier their criminal hub.

But Camp Hope provides a retreat that is relatively secure from warfare.

It also takes the pressure off crowded refugee camps in the border town of Kukes, where more than 100,000 Kosovo Albanians have overwhelmed the community of 25,000, fraying nerves, frustrating aid deliveries over the rugged mountains and taxing sewers.

"We would rather be closer to Kosovo so we can return quickly when it is safe," said 16-year-old Defrim Kurcagu, from the southwestern Kosovo town of Orahovac. Along with his parents and five brothers, he spent four nights sleeping in the open in Kukes before coming to Fier.

"But first," he said, "we must rest and regain our health, and this is a better place to do that."

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