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Aleksa Djilas On Why He Opposes the NATO Bombings in Belgrade.

Belgrade writer and historian Aleksa Djilas, talks about the NATO bombing of his city. He talks to us by phone from his home in central Belgrade. He says many thousands of Serbs have relocated to neighboring countries to escape the bombing. Also, He says the majority of Serbs are not using available bomb shelters because the air strikes last for up to twelve hours. Djilas is the author of the book The Contested Country: Yugoslav Unity and Communist Revolution. And he's a former research associate at Harvard's Russian Research Center.


Other segments from the episode on April 15, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 15, 1999: Interview with Aleksa Sjilas; Interview with Maarten Merkelbach; Interview with James R. Ackley.


Date: APRIL 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 041501np.217
Head: Aleksa Djilas
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Last night NATO mounted its heaviest air raids yet on Belgrade. This morning we called Belgrade to talk with Aleksa Djilas, a Serb writer who lives in the heart of the city. He's been critical of Milosevic in the past, but he's strongly opposed to the NATO bombing.

He's an active voice in Serb political debate, appearing regularly on TV as a political analyst and writing articles for several publications. He's had several op-ed pieces published in "The New York Times."

Djilas is the author of the book "The Contested Country: Yugoslav Unity and Communist Revolution," and he's a former research associate at Harvard's Russian Research Center.

I asked him which night of bombing was the worst for him.

ALEKSA DJILAS, YUGOSLAV WRITER AND HISTORIAN: Well, interestingly, you know, I am a kind of person who is nervous before the event, you know. Like when I went to school -- to the university -- I would be nervous -- I was anxious before the exam. But when the exam started, I was not, you know.

So for me the most anxious was the first few days of bombing. For example, the night after Javier Solana, General Secretary of NATO, authorized air strikes against Yugoslavia then I was nervous. But then once the first bombs started to fall and then when I saw some houses burning and broken glass and so on; so all this became somehow real for me.

And since then I'm coping mostly. I haven't had -- at the beginning I had several nights where I hardly slept at all. But now, I mean, I cannot say I sleep well but I do sleep, you know. So I am doing well.

My wife suffered very badly during the first week because we have two small children, you know, the daughter is two years old and the son is four years old. My wife, by the way, is in her mid '30s -- she's a dentist. And she -- for the first seven days she hardly and slept. And lost something like 12 pounds, and six pounds were a welcome loss, but the rest (unintelligible).


And we used to joke, you know, is this -- finally the West has discovered the perfect (unintelligible) diet. But that is sort of macabre humor.

But then, for example, people with children are very nervous. Then all the people are quite nervous. And another interesting phenomenon in Belgrade, no one has noticed this, but Belgrade has essentially become a city of refugees.

Because Belgrade has something like two million inhabitants. And very many people have left Belgrade, you know, they went either to Hungary or they went to the villages surrounding Belgrade where they believe -- people believe there will be less bombing.

Although, of course, that's very tricky, you know. Because sometimes you go to a village and exactly there is where the aircraft attack you. And then many people are moving inside Belgrade. You know, for example, people who live near a bridge would leave because they think the bridge may be hit.

GROSS: How come everyone isn't in a bomb shelter?

DJILAS: Well, you see, that's a very good question. We have bomb shelters here, and some have tried to go since they are solid and so on. Also, of course, even if you don't have a kind of properly made bomb shelter you can go to your cellar, which could serve as a bomb shelter.

And many people do go, but a large majority doesn't. And the reason is very simple, you see, because the air attacks last -- for example, in Belgrade my estimate is on average 12 hours. And then of course to spend 12 hours in this cramped space where the air is damp, it's also cold.

And especially with small children who cry and sometimes even get ill. And also it's a kind of very great pressure on your psyche because there are always some people who are panicking, you know, people tell all sorts of exaggerated stories and so on.

So that's one reason why people don't go to bomb shelters. And of course NATO knows that they are going to keep the whole of Serbia under air attacks 24 hours a day. And that of course -- there is no military rationale for that.

I mean, you don't -- I mean, an air attack on Belgrade, there's no military reason why it has to last 12 hours, right? I think they are doing this partly to break the will of the people and to wear them out and so on, you know.

I mean, NATO, of course -- the easiest way to wear people out would be to start shooting at civilians -- at civilians. But of course the public opinion in the West, and particularly in America, would not accept that; killing hundreds of civilians intentionally.

So they have been trying to think of kind of other ways, you know, within -- to coin a phrase -- the limits of military correctness. Where they could kind of intimidate the population without going for an all-out slaughter, which needless to say, you know, American public or West European public would not accept.

This is my explanation, my guess. Of course, it could be something else.

GROSS: What makes you think that -- you said, if I heard you correctly, that you think NATO if it could would actually be targeting civilians. Is that what you said?

DJILAS: Well, fair enough. I mean, when I say NATO, right -- OK, I stand corrected. I don't mean for example -- I don't think -- I think the majority of NATO kind of -- when we speak of NATO it's kind of countries in NATO -- would disapprove of that.

My guess would be, you know, that some commanding officers -- but this is -- I'm just saying, this is my impression, my estimate. I could easily be wrong -- would favor that.

You know, for example, let us say that the American four-star general Wesley Clark, who is the commander of NATO in Europe and who is in charge of this operation -- my judgment of his personality is that he is someone so obsessed with power, with victory; there is a sadistic streak when you listen to him, the way he speaks, the way he formulates sentences, you know.

I mean, really enjoying the power that he has. The fear he inspires. For example, that kind of man I could imagine would attack civilian buildings. But as I said, you know, I could be unfair to him. This is just my impression.

And you have to say -- I have also to add that when you are in a city which is being bombed, you know, you tend to judge harshly those who bomb you. So with these reservations, you know, accept what I just said.

GROSS: How do you think the NATO bombing is affecting popular opinion about Milosevic in Serbia?

DJILAS: You know, many people in America expected that once first cruise missiles hit their targets people will turn against Milosevic. I was always telling people this, you know, is a billion dollar miscalculation and misjudgment.

And of course the moment bombs started hitting right, opposition simply disappeared. I mean, we're not divided anymore in Serbia into those who are for Milosevic or against Milosevic. We're all united against NATO bombing.

And this is not so peculiar. For example, Americans unite around the president in time of war. And of course America fights wars faraway from its own territory. And imagine if America was attacked, I mean, all sins and follies of President Clinton would be immediately forgotten.

That doesn't mean, of course -- this is something that people don't understand. It doesn't mean Milosevic has become extremely popular. I mean those who are against him, including myself, are still against him. And I don't think that if there were elections now or in a few weeks that he would win an overwhelming victory. Far from it.

Nevertheless, we have put internal politics on hold. Political parties don't exhibit party symbols. There's very little kind of political debate. And we are all concentrated on one hand of just stopping the bombing and somehow surviving.

And on the other hand, on somehow resolving the Kosovo crisis. So in that sense it was a victory of Milosevic. But you don't see much of him. For example, there are public meetings everywhere in Serbia. Everyday there is one in Belgrade, you know, accompanied with rock music and so on just to boost people's morale.

And you rarely see Milosevic's pictures. You sometimes see them in smaller towns in Serbia where he has more support. But certainly -- and for example, if a speaker mentions his name there is a rather anemic applause. So he has not become -- some people say he is becoming Churchill of Serbia.

This is not true. But it is even less true to believe and to hope that he will be overthrown and that people will turn against him.

GROSS: My guest is Aleksa Djilas, a Serb writer and political analyst who is joining us by phone from his home in Belgrade. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our phone call to Aleksa Djilas in Belgrade. He's a Serb writer and political analyst, and a former research associate at Harvard's Russian Research Center.

You had said that if there were an election tomorrow that Milosevic probably would win it, but not by a huge margin. But it strikes me that we're not talking about just politics as usual.

President Milosevic is responsible for ethnic cleansing in Kosovo now. And, you know, I imagine you're aware of the hundreds and thousands -- the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been forced out of Kosovo.

And I'm wondering how that's affected your opinion and the opinion of people who you're close to about Milosevic.

DJILAS: People in Serbia are not aware. I mean, they kind of know that something -- that there is lots of fighting in Kosovo and that people are leaving. But they're not aware how many refugees have left Kosovo.

So this is one reason. Then of course, you know, I have to tell you the story about Kosovo. Milosevic has ruled Serbia for 12 years, as I said before, and he has not practiced ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. You can accuse Milosevic of many things where Albanians in Kosovo are concerned.

You can accuse him, and I did accuse him in numerous articles and interviews, that, for example, why did he take away the autonomy, or most of it, for Kosovo Albanians? The police force in Kosovo was mixed Albanian- Serbian; under Milosevic it became almost completely Serbian.

Many Albanians were dismissed from work. There were cases of police brutality. People arrested without good reason and so on. But these are more kind of human rights, minority rights violations.

What I think has happened is that first of all because of the bombing many people have left just to run away from bombing. And I'm certain that this is the main cause, because so many people in Belgrade, as I told you at the very beginning, have left their home because they're afraid of bombing.

And Kosovo is bombed much more intensely with much greater ferocity than Belgrade.

GROSS: Do you think that the reports of a systematic ethnic cleansing in Kosovo where ethnic Albanians are being forced out of their homes by Serb troops or paramilitary troops at gunpoint have -- do you think that those reports have any credibility at all?

DJILAS: Absolutely. You see, as I tried to explain to you in my previous answer, I'm not saying that there is no ethnic cleansing Kosovo. I'm saying that there is no planned and systematic ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. And that the major reason why people are leaving are the -- is the bombing.

But as I said, there is a civil war being fought in Kosovo. In this civil war you have on one side Kosovo Liberation Army and part of Albanian population which supports. On the other side, you have Serbs -- Serbian minority in Kosovo. They are local militias and paramilitary forces.

I believe that both these groups -- I have no direct evidence -- but just by studying nationalism in Yugoslavia, in the Balkans and in general I'm sure that these groups commit crimes against civilians and that they expel civilians.

And I would expect that in that sense, Serbian local militia's and paramilitary's have probably expelled Albanians, yes. But what I'm trying to say is that this is not something Milosevic or Serbia have planned before. Because, you know, they had 12 years of his rule to do that, and they haven't done it.

Why would they be waiting for NATO bombing, where from the point of view of Serbia's international reputation, it is the most damaging thing they could possibly do -- to do something, which in any case cannot give any lasting results.

Because even if you expel several hundred thousand Albanians from Kosovo they would still remain an overwhelming majority in Kosovo. And in any case, you know, these people who are expelled most of them will return. Everyone knows that -- the moment a peace treaty is signed.

In any case, the official policy of the Yugoslav government, the proclaimed the goal, is the return of refugees. They're calling refugees back all the time. The column of refugees which was, I hope, accidentally attacked by a NATO bomber yesterday they were actually returning from Albania -- from Albania into Kosovo.

So, I'm not in any way saying that there is no ethnic cleansing or that no Serbian forces have committed crimes against humanity. I'm saying that this is not planned systematic operation. And that the lion's share of responsibility for whatever is happening in Kosovo now lies with NATO.

Because before NATO attacked you had a kind of low-level civil war. In Kosovo you had human rights violations, violations of minority rights, you had some massacres both committed by KLA and Serbian forces. But no one -- no international observers, verifying commission, no Western journalists spoke of ethnic cleansing.

So to defend that there is ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, it is either directly or indirectly caused by NATO bombing. By this I don't mean that there are no Serbian civilians -- Serbs -- in Kosovo who should not be brought to trial. Of course there are.

GROSS: I want to ask you a few more things about what life is like in Belgrade now.

DJILAS: As far -- you know, shops are still full but many people say that most of industry does not work. And of course there are very little imports. And we suspect that soon, you know, government will not be able -- people will not get their monthly wages.

So the government will have to issue coupons, you see what I mean? Like for milk and cooking oil and whatever -- potatoes and so on. So many people, including myself, we have bought some food so that it can last us maybe a month.

I probably would not have done this if I lived on my own, but when you have two children you tend to think along those lines. And then of course there are no cigarettes -- or there is a shortage of cigarettes, rather. And so things like that.

But for example, traffic still functions and you can even hire a taxi in Belgrade. So that means there is still enough gasoline. And this is a very important point, you know, to return to your question, you know, about ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

NATO justifies this campaign, which has been going on for over three years -- for over three weeks, sorry -- as an attempt to result -- to result humanitarian catastrophe. But they haven't resulted at all after three weeks.

Not only that, Serbian forces in Kosovo -- the military, the police -- still have more or less all the weapons they had at the beginning. And indeed, there is enough gasoline. I mean, if there is enough gasoline for cabs in Belgrade, I'm sure there is enough gasoline for tanks in Kosovo.

And if Milosevic wanted to, while you and I are talking on the phone now, he could lift the phone and tell his whatever -- 50,000 troops in Kosovo kill 50,000 Albanian's. No one could stop him.

So the power of his forces in Kosovo has not been even dented by the three weeks of bombing, which makes me conclude that the real reason for bombing is not a humanitarian catastrophe or concern with Albanians in Kosovo, but it's just a desire to subjugate Serbia and make it accept the peace treaty which, you know, NATO and NATO commanders and NATO politicians have for it.

Otherwise, I see no other justification for it. I mean, they're destroying factories which produce cars. Factories which produce vacuum cleaners, hair dryers. Bridges which are over 300 miles away from Kosovo. That in no way prevents or stops Serbian forces in Kosovo to do whatever they want to do.

Even, for example, attacking military targets in Serbia has no purpose. For example, if you destroy, for example, a weapons factory in central Serbia; these weapons which are at this moment being produced when the factory is hit would reach Kosovo only in several months time.

Because when you're producing a weapon it takes time to assemble it, to test it. So this is -- I don't think this campaign -- the real rationale for the campaign is to help the Albanian people in Kosovo. In any case, if you wanted peace in Kosovo there is a shortcut to peace.

You would -- for example, NATO says that they want foreign troops, or NATO troops, to come in to Kosovo because without these troops Albanians will not feel secure and would not return to Kosovo. That -- I except that argument. I think it is justified.

Nevertheless, they are demanding from Milosevic to withdraw all his forces completely and immediately from Kosovo. That is tantamount to asking for unconditional surrender. That leaves no space for diplomatic action. And no Serb would accept that, you know.

So if NATO was really interested in the fate of refugees they would look for a compromise solution. They would say to Milosevic, OK, you can keep your troops but we will bring our troops.

So our troops will be there to guarantee the security of Albanians, and your troops will be there to guarantee the security of the Serbian minority in Kosovo and also Serbian sovereignty in Kosovo.

But no such compromise is made. They really want to have an all-out victory; to teach Serbia as a state, or Serbs as a nation, a lesson. And also, to kind of globally and especially in Europe and in the Balkans and the Middle East to show that NATO is a power that no one should ever dare to challenge.

GROSS: I was glad that you were able to talk with us today because it was my understanding that it was against the law now in Serbia to give interviews to the foreign press. Is that against the law now?

DJILAS: I'm not aware of such a law. But I can tell you, for example, that let us say that no one has tried to censor me for many years in which I have criticized government, Milosevic, Serbia nationalism and so on.

And if anyone had tried to censor me, for example, several months ago, for example, I would have said no. I will not be censored. And I would have been ready to go to jail. I'm saying this without any pathos. I mean, that is something I've talked about a lot, and that was my decision.

For example, but let us say that after our conversation now, for example, tomorrow state security knocks on my door and tells me, we think you're interviews are bad for the security of our country. I would try to convince them that they are not. But if they insisted, I would probably stop giving interviews.

Not because I am afraid of them, but because I would be thinking that under the circumstances, and in the situation where we are in war, it's -- perhaps it is not patriotic to challenge the authorities. But I'm not sure, I haven't made up my mind.

But this is probably the 30th interview I have given since the war started, and no one ever has said -- has threatened me in any way. So I hope it doesn't happen.

GROSS: Aleksa Djilas spoke to us from his home in Belgrade. We recorded our interview earlier today. Djilas is the author of the book, "The Contested Country: Yugoslav Unity and Communist Revolution." And he is a former research associate at Harvard's Russian Research Center.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Aleksa Djilas
High: Belgrade writer and historian Aleksa Djilas talks about the NATO bombing of his city. He says many thousands of Serbs have relocated to neighboring countries to escape the bombing. Also, he says the majority of Serbs are not using available bomb shelters because the air strikes last for up to 12 hours. He does not believe the Yugoslavian Army planned the ethnic cleansing now occurring in Kosovo. He also believes the main reason Kosovars are leaving is because of the NATO bombing.
Spec: War; Kosovo; Bombing; NATO; Europe; Lifestyle; Culture; Aleksa Djilas

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Aleksa Djilas

Date: APRIL 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 041502NP.217
Head: Maarteen Merkelbach
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Many refugees got separated from their families in the process of fleeing Kosovo and settling in refugee camps. The International Committee of the Red Cross is trying to help some of those people find their families through a tracing system.

My guest Maarteen Merkelbach is the head of Tracing Services for the ICRC in Macedonia. We called him in Macedonia earlier today and he described how the system works.

MAARTEEN MERKLEBACH, HEAD OF TRACING SERVICES, INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS: You have to imagine that people under stress, panic, fear have been moving, and it's a little bit like at the end of a ballgame or a very busy busy Saturday afternoon at a supermarket; you lose people in that sort of context when a mass of people is moving.

So different parts of your family end up in different places. Now there isn't a meeting point in many of these places because here we have six camps were people could be -- they could be out of the camp in the country somewhere or even have ended up in a neighboring country like Albania. They could still be in Montenegro.

So the potential places where your wife or your child has ended up multiplies. What we do is we register cases here that we find. We take the name of their parent or the family member that they're looking for, and try to find out if these people do the same thing in the other context -- Albania, Montenegro or other European countries where people arrive -- have done the same thing, and then we can match them up.

GROSS: How many people have registered so far?

MERKELBACH: Well, we can't register the hundreds of thousands of people this concerns. So what we concentrate on is the most vulnerable cases at this stage. I mean, young children, very elderly people, handicapped people.

Those we will look for actively and will register on a database. For example, here in Skopje we have almost 200 children who lost their parents, they're without any adult family member. What we provide for the adults is that they have the chance to write a message -- a Red Cross message -- and if they have a vague idea of where their relatives could be we can see if we can deliver that message.

For example, many people have heard via people that have moved around that they've seen their husband in another camp or another country. We can take the message. We'll take it to this other camp and see if we can identify this person.

We'll set up a little tent in the other camp and people who are interested in finding out if there is a message for them come by, and pick up this message.

GROSS: Say you find out that the family that you've been separated from is in a camp in another country, can the Red Cross help you get to the rest of your family if the trip is a big one?

MERKELBACH: That's the next step. Once you've stayed out where parts of your family are they want to be unified. Again, we can't help hundreds of thousands of people. I think we helped a lot already once we've put them back in touch again.

We can help more actively the more vulnerable people. If it's across countries, needless to say, embassies and national directives have to be observed. So the final decision is really with the host country -- government -- of where these people have arrived or want to go to.

But we can facilitate for the most vulnerable cases the application for visas and present cases that are more vulnerable, they cannot do it themselves. So yes, we do quite a lot of that already.

GROSS: Have you come across children who were too young to talk and to give you information, or even infants who are totally unable to supply you any information that would explain who they were or who their families are?

MERKELBACH: We have a few cases that you find with mentally handicapped people or very young children, but the majority of children know who they are, who their parents are and what their address was back home.

Imagine that if four children travel with their mother in a refugee flow, the mother will probably carry the youngest child. So it's the elder ones who walk around and who most likely get split off. So most of the children that we have are between 10 and 15.

There are some babies. They're mostly babies that were taken in the middle of the emergency by medical services -- taken to hospital. So if the mother tells us, you know, they took my baby that day. I don't know which hospital he is. I'm very worried.

We take a team. We go around all the hospitals in town and will identify with the doctors in the hospital which babies were brought in at that time. And we do find that we already have unified babies with their mothers again.

GROSS: What kind of emotional and physical shape are most of the children who have been separated from their families in?

MERKELBACH: The older they get the more affected they are with what they've been through. The strange thing is of course that children adapt very quickly. They don't perhaps realize very well what is happening around them. So the children, they probably take a longer time to digest it over time, but at the moment they're doing quite all right.

I think people who are most worried are the parents. They know what's happened. They know the risks they're running. And they're the ones that lie awake at night wondering about whether they'll ever see their child again.

GROSS: So, is this system that you have now computerized?

MERKELBACH: We have a very small database here. We have 185 children registered with their location and we're looking for their parents. We made a small list of about 400 parents that were localized -- were looking for children -- we do that locally.

We try to do as much here between the camps in town because most likely these people are somewhere near us. Now if that will succeed over the next three weeks -- three, four weeks, month -- all those we haven't been able to unify we'll have to centralized in a database that connects with the same one we've done in Albania, and in the host country where the refugees have arrived.

And then see if we can find the parents in these other places. We haven't centralized all of the people yet in one database, but we'll have to consider at what stage we do that.

GROSS: Let me ask you a question that might sound very odd and incredibly cynical. But is there ever the fear that somebody would use your system to track down an enemy as opposed to track down a family?

MERKELBACH: The key is that we only exchange family news between family members.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

MERKELBACH: So we would only allow a person to write a message to a family member. And on the other side, the person that says is their message for me will verify whether he is a family member. Ask them some questions -- do you know this person? What is it?

You can tell emotionally what people are emotionally involved or not. So these are not public messages and they are not for nonrelated persons. So it eliminates a lot of the potential of abuse.

GROSS: My guest is Maarteen Merkelbach, head of Tracing Services in Macedonia for the International Committee of the Red Cross. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Maarteen Merkelbach. He runs the Red Cross program in Macedonia that is helping lost refugees to reunite with the families they were separated from while fleeing Kosovo or entering refugee camps.

Are they're still a lot of cases from, say even Bosnia and earlier wars that are still open? Where the families have not been relocated.

MERKELBACH: Well, unfortunately, in this sort of situation, yeah. In spite of the fact you can help a lot of people find out about each other, every context has its opened cases that will never be resolved. For example, the central tracing agency in Geneva still occasionally treats cases that date back to World War I.

Very regularly, weekly, we get cases for World War II. Other big operations in which we were involved like the Cambodian crisis, the earlier Yugoslavian war; many many cases are still being treated locally. So we can expect that what happens here at this time that we'll have work for many many years to come.

GROSS: Where else have you worked on tracing systems?

MERKELBACH: Rwanda, for example, when two million Rwandans fled abroad and settled up with refugee camps. This was '94, we're 1999 now, five years. It's still going on for thousands of cases.

GROSS: How does the system you've created in each place compare?

MERKELBACH: Well, the newness of this situation here in Macedonia a lot of people arrived with portable phones. They used them for a few days so they could all other people. And they've called relatives in Europe who call other people. There's a huge network among these people across the world.

Now batteries are flat, but they still have the little telephone address number books that they're borrowing and using portable phones and fax phones that are available in the camps for humanitarian organizations for the press. So there's a lot of phone calling happening.

Which means that they can find out quite a lot themselves. For example, yesterday I walked into camp, a woman approaches you with an address book. All she wants is too quickly call to Germany to tell her husband were she is and that she's all right.

So this satisfies already the first and primary need to take away the pain from somebody who doesn't know what's happened. Their next problem is then to be able to write to them and get the procedures going so they can be re-unified.

That's very particular for this context. In Rwanda you didn't have that of course, because people did not have phones. They just simply moved. And they relied on the Red Cross message system, which took a bit longer.

GROSS: Is the Red Cross trying to set up battery re-chargers for cell phones?

MERKELBACH: In some camps these are available. What we provide between the camps is the Red Cross message system, because we can do it quickly. The camps are very close to each other, sometimes only 10 minutes drive -- sometimes only 20 minutes drive. So we can bring these things up and down very rapidly. There are points being set up in camps so people can call.

GROSS: Can I ask what inspired you to do this kind of work?

MERKELBACH: I think what inspired me is as a young boy listening to my father's experiences during the Second World War. I'm wondering how I would have reacted in myself if I had been in a situation like that.

Now fortunately I live in a country and in an age where war hasn't happened to me. But I wanted to see what I could do in situations like that and how I would react, how it would help. So I joined the International Committee for the Red Cross, and I found out that it was extremely satisfying to work like that.

And I feel useful. And at least I don't do any damage. Maybe if I can't help, I don't do any damage. And very often I can help. I think what we do makes an enormous amount of difference to many people, even if it's only a small part of the many many people who need more assistance.

GROSS: What was your father's situation during the war?

MERKELBACH: My father was a young man who had joined the police, and then Germany invaded the Netherlands. And he had to work as a police officer under German occupation, which caused of course many many troubles because the Dutch population wasn't in agreement with the German policies. Have do you deal with it?

So there were many many experiences that he tried to deal with and perform his function -- serve the population at the same time trying to avoid following orders that he didn't agree with. Eventually had to go underground and tried to work in the resistance and help people anyway. So he had (unintelligible) his life to do that.

And then after the war he had to deal with these experiences, and try to set up a normal life with all the consequences of the trauma of the war.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your work and about trying to reunite refugees from Kosovo. Thank you very much, and good luck.

MERKELBACH: Happy to talk to you. Thank you.

GROSS: Maarteen Merkelbach is the head of Tracing Services in Macedonia for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Maarteen Merkelbach
High: Maarteen Merkelbach is head of Tracing Services for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He is directing the use of a newly designed computer system to match up family members of Kosovo refugees separated during the exodus. We talked with him from Skopje, Macedonia.
Spec: Refugees; War; Kosovo; Europe; NATO; Lifestyle; Culture; Maarteen Merkelbach

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Maarteen Merkelbach

Date: APRIL 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 041503NP.217
Head: Randy Ackley
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Randy Ackley is working at the Brazde refugee camp in Macedonia. He is a Public Information Delegate with the International Committee of the Red Cross. He's working with the hospital, the water treatment program and the tracing services program that is trying to reunite refugee families that have been separated while fleeing Kosovo.

We spoke with Ackley earlier today just after a truck of refugees had pulled into the camp.

RANDY ACKLEY, PUBLIC INFORMATION DELEGATE, INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS: Yes, what we were able to do was identify families that had been split between two different refugee camps, and it was pretty heartwarming to see. Now, I was in the Brazde camp where the refugees were brought in an army truck.

And about 25 people in the back of the truck with an open -- with a canvas over it and an open back. And as they came out you could tell that many of them were tired, but they had been staying in the Voyana (ph) camp about 40 kilometers away.

You could also tell that the crowds outside the area that was cordoned off were very excited about seeing family members and friends that were getting off of the truck. It was very exciting for them. So even though they were tired, and you could tell they were ready to find somewhere to settle down, they were pretty heartened at the moment.

GROSS: Have you heard any specific stories about how the families were separated from each other?

ACKLEY: I have actually, and unfortunately in the rush to bring people to more safe conditions from the Blace retention area by Blace unfortunately people got split up in the rush. One young lady with her 18 month-old baby girl was in my car the other night.

And she had explain that their family was pretty much together up until Blace and then they were separated. Her husband and she and her two daughters were separated from their other daughter and son. The daughter was 16 and the son 10.

She described not being able to eat and neither was her husband for over a week because they had no idea where their children were. And then the night that we were able to re-unify them she said, you know, I feel like I'm in Paris. I feel like I could jump to the moon.

The same lady, in that same conversation, explained that a year ago we had our business, we had our home, we were a happily settled family having our lives. And now all we have left are our souls and the clothes on our backs. And so there's a real mix of emotions there.

First, of course, the trauma of what everybody -- all the refugees are going through, and certainly the trauma that this family had gone through. But then of course they were just absolutely thrilled that the Red Cross was able to locate their children and get them back to each other's arms.

GROSS: How did the system work for them in reuniting them?

ACKLEY: What's happening at this point is the Red Cross system -- we register refugees at the camps, we register them in the communities where they've taken refuge with host families. And we also have registration with the countries that are accepting refugees -- the third party countries that are accepting refugees.

All of the data is going into a computer system run by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The system also is being provided information from Albania as it becomes available, and as soon as we're able to get into Yugoslavia we'll be providing information from the Kosovo area and Yugoslavia as a whole.

What we're hearing now -- what we're seeing now are those people who have been split apart between camps, and that's fairly easy to connect because the data is readily available. People are getting the data in as we speak, and we can make the connection because they're close in proximity.

But unfortunately, the fact is that we'll probably take longer for people -- for a lot of people to find each other. One of the very sad elements of this whole tragic disaster is that we have already, as of yesterday, received over 250 -- between 250, 270 children who have come to the Red Cross 18 years and younger and said can you please help me find my family.

And we've received 735 parents have come to the Red Cross and said please up me find my children. Of those, only three matched. So just as of yesterday we know that there are over 1,000 children split from their families.

And the unfortunate truth is we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced, and any normal mass movement of people there's a small percentage -- two to five percent of children that get separated from their parents.

And here we're seeing a tremendous number of people who have gone through that, and we're very concerned about the number of people who have been separated from their children. So that's our highest priority at this point.

GROSS: In your discussions with refugees, I'm sure the subject must come up of why they fled Kosovo in the first place. What patterns are you hearing?

ACKLEY: Well, I think we've all been hearing very similar stories. And they aren't -- I mean, it's easy to understand why people have come here. The stories I'm hearing are people who have been forcibly asked or forced from their homes and from their towns. And beyond that I really can't say.

GROSS: You know, some of the Serbs are saying it's not that they were forced out of their homes, it's that they're fleeing the NATO bombing. Have you heard directly from any refugees that they left Kosovo because of the NATO bombing?

ACKLEY: No, I've been here about five, six, seven -- let me see -- five days, I've never heard that.

GROSS: My guest is Randy Ackley. He's working with the Red Cross in refugee camps in Macedonia. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Randy Ackley, a Public Information Delegate with the International Committee of the Red Cross. He's speaking to us from the Brazde refugee camp in Macedonia.

What are conditions like now at the refugee camp where you are? Maybe you can kind of describe the camp for us.

ACKLEY: The camp is actually very well organized, but it's -- it's a camp. I mean, it's many many tents. There are several camps I've been to -- Brazde is the one today with -- there are roughly 2,000 tents in the camp. And the population I've heard, it's not reliable because the numbers have changed since I last heard this number, but it was at one point holding 26,000 people. It might be more or less now.

The services provided are pretty thorough. We're very comfortable at the moment that we have the vital necessities, the life sustaining necessities -- the food and the water that are necessary. The camp management has done a good job of getting those supplies to the refugees.

The Red Cross and other organizations are working together to supply them. But you know, with all of that said; it's organized, it's orderly, people have a place to feel somewhat secure. They're living in tents out in the open on what used to be a sports airfield, which gets freezing cold at night. Which can be blistering hot in the sun.

And the things that they need most at times are things like telephones, and we have an organization, the ICMC, which has actually set up telephones which is helping tremendously. But this is not the life you or I would choose. It's not a life anybody would want.

And it can be a terrible existence, even though your vital necessities are met. So it can be very hard.

GROSS: You've been working with the Red Cross field hospital. What kind of health problems are you seeing?

ACKLEY: Well, what the hospital is of course pregnancies. There are several people who are pregnant and are receiving care from the field hospital. But we're also seeing, in children especially, bronchial problems, pneumonia. We have patients with pneumonia.

We have cases of digestive problems -- some diarrhea. Even in some cases constipation which is a serious issue if you're really uncomfortable and have pain. So, a variety of things.

But the good news is we don't have any evidence of any epidemics at this point. The population that's come in to the camp is relatively healthy and well nourished. And for the most part, people are in fairly good health. And so that's the very good news.

But of course, given this high population kept in a very small area, everybody needs to maintain their vigilance and maintain the sanitary control and keep on top of the medical issues as they arrive.

GROSS: We're hearing reports that there are still more refugees headed out of Kosovo. You were at the border today. Which part of the border were you at, and what did you see?

ACKLEY: I was at a crossing at Blace. What I saw were several hundred refugees who were coming over from Kosovo. This time they had come over on foot from close to the border. They had actually driven from their villages just this morning, and they had -- they were forced to leave their cars and transportation away from the crossing point.

But they were being bused to the Brazde -- Brazde refugee camp about 10 kilometers away. The people were in pretty good condition. There were a few that were exhausted. One man was on a stretcher for exhaustion and kidney problems, but the interesting thing is that we were told that there were additional 30 to 40 tractors coming that hadn't yet arrived.

Each tractor carrying a load of refugees. So we haven't seen them yet. We're waiting to see them to get an idea of what that will involve.

GROSS: You know, Randy, I know it's your job as a Public Information Delegate with the Red Cross to deal with the media. People such as those of us here at FRESH AIR. The refugee camps have become really a big media event.

Like you can put on certain cable news stations in the United States and you're likely to see a broadcast from a refugee camp. And I'm wondering what it's been like for you on the media end, because it really has become not only a tragic event, but also a media event.

ACKLEY: Well, I think there are a couple of points. One is there is the feeling of working -- you know, our friends amongst the refugees they want their story told. They clearly know that the world is interested and they don't want -- the don't seem to shy away from some attention.

Although -- then there is the other point where at times the media attention can be obtrusive. There is no way around it. And what I think many people are concerned about is that if a family is just reunited it's a wonderful story and up until now they've been very understanding in working with us and with the media, and it's been terrific.

But I think at one point I was a little concerned when I saw a camera crew actually get into a tent with a family. I thought that was little bit obtrusive. On the other hand, the family was fine, and they were fine with it.

But we do try to make sure that whenever the media is involved, certainly if we're present from the Red Cross, we make sure that the family's are open to and willing to participate and are willing to have the media watch them as they go through what are incredibly personal experiences.

Another aspect is the camp is a very large place, so when a crew sets up a place to do live shots or they set up a semi-permanent place to do broadcasts from it really doesn't seem to be that much of a problem, and actually the kids like watching and getting involved.

So, it can be fun from that perspective.

GROSS: Randy, what inspired you to do this kind of work? To work with the Red Cross?

ACKLEY: I was -- I was a lawyer in Miami and started volunteering with the Red Cross. And I just have to tell you that as a volunteer and working with a disaster -- in that case it was -- my first disaster was a hotel fire -- sitting with a family and helping provide the father with dentures so that he could chew food again.

You can't do that -- you can't do things like that -- helping people like that and not want to do more of it. And frankly, volunteering with the Red Cross and working with Red Cross has been the most rewarding thing I can possibly imagine. So I guess that's it.

GROSS: Randy Ackley is a Public Information Delegate with the International Committee for the Red Cross. He spoke to us from the Brazde refugee camp in Macedonia. Our conversation was recorded earlier today.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Randy Ackley
High: Randy Ackley is a Public Information Delegate for the ICRC. He talks with us from a refugee camp in Macedonia. He talks about the conditions in the camp.
Spec: Refugees; War; Kosovo; Europe; Lifestyle; Culture; Randy Ackley

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Randy Ackley
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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