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Yugoslavia: NATO Peacekeeping Troops Become Relief Workers

Stenkovec, Macedonia; 8 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When British soldier Terry Lees -- a sergeant in the Royal Corps of Signals -- came to Macedonia with NATO troops, she fully expected to be working on communications at brigade headquarters in Kosovo as part of a peacekeeping force.

Instead, she finds herself out in the sun in the center of a hastily erected refugee transit camp, handing out loaves of bread to desperate, traumatized ethnic-Albanian refugees who have been driven from their homes in Kosovo.

Lees is one of scores of British soldiers now performing humanitarian aid duties in Macedonia instead of the peacekeeping role they expected to assume in Kosovo.

In just one night earlier this week, British NATO soldiers erected 500 tents to house refugees on the Stenkovec sports airfield -- between the Macedonian capital, Skopje, and the Kosovo border -- that NATO now calls Brazda. Another 1,000 tents were erected over the following 48 hours. Brazda now houses 30,000 Kosovar refugees.

NATO spokesman Major Jan Joosten emphasizes that the 12,000 NATO troops in Macedonia are still standing by to go into Kosovo as peacekeepers, if a peace deal is ever reached. In the meantime, the force is using what he called its "excess logistics capabilities" to erect tents, ship and distribute humanitarian aid, and cook meals for the refugees until regular humanitarian aid agencies can take over.

In Joosten's words, "NATO forces are doing everything possible to help the Macedonian government ease the suffering of the Kosovo refugees."

Another NATO spokesman, Major Eric Mongnot, says NATO soldiers have been working day and night to help make life slightly more bearable for the refugees. He said some soldiers have not slept for 72 hours.

For many NATO soldiers, the scenes at Brazda are shocking, especially after a newborn baby dies after days of outdoor exposure on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia.

Even those refugees who are in relatively good physical shape are exhausted and often covered with mud and excrement after being forced to sleep outside at the border for up to a week. Now safely in Brazda, many of them wander in a daze, uncertain of what will happen to them next, or sit crying for their many relatives who have gone missing.

Padre (chaplain) John Ritson of the British NATO forces says these scenes are especially shocking in Europe at the end of the 20th century. And he says he's particularly angry at Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whom he blames for the refugees' plight.

"I think it highlights that the problems that we see sometimes on the TV in Africa actually can happen in Europe. It's actually very hard to believe that we're only a few hundred miles from countries where at the moment there's great affluence. We take for granted a lot of what we have at home. Look around at the people here -- they're dressed in Western clothing, they look Western, they have some of the designer clothing that people have, but everything else, they've lost. They at one time, perhaps, had careers and occupations, children at school. And it's actually very hard to believe this is happening in Europe." Many of the NATO soldiers say they are glad to be doing something useful, rather than just repeating training for their possible peacekeeping mission.

A spokesman for the British forces at Brazda, Captain Anthony Kennaway, says the soldiers have adapted easily to their temporary duty as humanitarian aid workers.

"British soldiers in themselves are extremely flexible creatures and therefore are very capable of making a change like that. It's great to be able to actually make a difference here, and so to actually do this humanitarian work, we're very pleased to be able to do that, and happy to do it, although we are still very keen to carry out our initial mission, which is the peace implementation."

Kennaway says the relief work gives soldiers a "purpose in life." He says it's gratifying to be able to improve the refugees' situation by providing such basics as food, water and a clean, dry place to sleep.

"I hear very much that people are happier here than they were actually on the border, and that gives me a good feeling. And I hope we are making a difference."

The overwhelming influx of refugees came so unexpectedly, so quickly, and in such vast numbers that neither the Macedonian government nor international relief agencies were prepared to cope. With the relief effort gradually being organized by the normal charities, the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the NATO soldiers' stint as aid workers may be limited.

But General Michael Jackson, commander of the NATO forces in Macedonia, offers assurances that NATO will help as long as is needed.

He told correspondents in Brazda yesterday that "if we have to do more, we will. If more [refugees] come, we will do our level best to take care of them."