In the face of the agonizing situation facing so many Kosovar Albanian refugees, CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver asks if the safe haven offered by the Clinton administration, a plan that is now on hold, was the best of ideas. This special column for CBS.com is updated each week for the CBS News Sunday Morning site on CBS.com. An archive of The Braver Line is available.
More refugee pictures. More heartbreaking stories. Suddenly, after driving them from their villages, the Serbs have begun to force some Kosovar ethnic Albanians back to their burned-out homes. In Macedonia, tens of thousands of refugees are awakened in the middle of the night, put on buses and driven into Albania.
News reports say family members are separated, deportees refused any information on their destinations. Yet stories of incredible kindness emerge, especially of Albanians opening their meager homes and spending their few precious pennies to buy food for refugees. One woman takes 19 distant family members into her tiny apartment. Others go to the refugee camps to offer shelter to total strangers.
So the news that President Clinton had planned to bring some 20,000 refugees to the United States was welcome. We should be willing to do our part to grant some relief to these people, to show them that they do have a right to a decent life, that being robbed of their homes should not force them to surrender their basic humanity.
But then came more news - that these refugees would be housed, not within the continental United States, but at the US naval base at Guantanamo, a small tip of Cuba this country controls. Memories of a visit to Guantanamo come flooding back. Haitian refugees jammed into primitive housing. The terrible stench from latrines wafting through the air. Conditions so crowded that arguments break out frequently. An armed camp atmosphere.
Guantanamo was grim for the Haitians who landed there, fleeing from the chaos in their own land. It was grim for Cuban refugees detained there as they struggled to find freedom in the United States. But for the Kosovar Albanians, it seemed like a punishment for being forced out of their land, at least partially as a result of the US-led NATO bombing campaign. Indeed, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was already waging a war of terror against these people, but even US officials were not expecting this sudden deluge of refugees.
Why not let them set foot on our soil? One reason being given is that if they do come here, they have greater legal rights to ask to settle here permanently. Another is that President Clinton still remembers the problems he had as Arkansas governor when refugee Cubans were detained in his state.
But this is different. Our deliberate decision to get involved in Kosovo gives us a responsibility to make special allowances for a refugee population we helped to create We do not have to take the Kosovar Albanian refugees to Disney World, but we can and should offer them some good old-fashioned American hospitality.
Other countries, like Turkey, Norway, Germany, Australia and Canada are agreeing to accept Kosovar Albanians. The Clinton administration should set an example by making refugees it accepts comfortable and helping them reestablish their dignity.
We should show that our generosity can be measured not only in the number of bombs that we drop, but also in the number of American hands extended in friendship.
By Rita Braver
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