"This is impossible?" shouted Florentino Mesa, throwing up his hands. "The situation here, it's like crazy."
Mesa, 46, scratched two-days' worth of beard, grown while waiting for the release of his relatives, brother Jorge Mesa and family, from the Cuban refugee holding center here.
Most of his waiting was done in the car Mesa drove some 800 miles north from Miami. Now, he said he was tired and angered by the red tape that was turning his trip into hours and days of disappointment and frustration.
The anger is shared by many of the 8,200 refugees living in 800-square-foot tents behind fences on 30 acres of hot, dusty fairgrounds adjacent to this military base. Over the weekend, tensions among the refugees broke into what Air Force officials here are calling a miniriot.
There was a lot of rock-throwing and fisticuffs, during which up to 100 frustrated refugees jumped barbed wire fences in search of freedom. Most did not find what they were looking for and voluntarily returned to the camp. Others were picked up hitchhiking or trying to telephone relatives. About three of the refugees were still unlocated today, Air Force officials said.
At Fort Chaffee, Ark., about 300 Cubans tried to flee the resettlement center Monday night as military police were prepared to impose the nightly curfew. The Cubans were rounded up by police today.
Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials estimated that the "freedom flotilla" from Cuba to Key West could end within days. About 100 boats were reportedly still at Mariel harbor in Cuba awaiting refugee passengers, according to Coast Guard Cmdr. Samuel Dennis, who said his estimates were based on aerial surveillance and other reports.
As of today, about 84,000 Cuban refugees have arrived in the United States since the exodus began.
If nothing else, the disturbances served to highlight the seemingly interminable resettlement procedure that is a breeding ground for frustration here, both among the refugees and among many of the residents of the base's nearest town, Fort Walton Beach.
Mesa's case is an example. His relatives are among the estimated 1,200 refugees who have successfully completed all of their screening here but are awaiting final clearance from Washington. Mesa, like many other family members coming here from places as far away as California, arrived thinking that it would be easy to collect his brother, sister-in-law and their two children and leave.
"Two days," Mesa moaned to a reporter. "I've been here two days already," he said, standing with other Cuban American families near a Vista-operated (Volunteers in Service to America) refugee trailer.
"I see on the book [computer printout] yesterday here that Jorge is ready for out. He all finished with papers. They all ready for out, but here I sit and wait.
"This is impossible," Mesa said, striking his head with a hand.
Since May 3, 9,998 refugees have arrived at Eglin and 1,408 have been released to sponsors. Except for 390 detained for security reasons and about 1,200 waiting for security clearances from Washington, the rest are waiting to be matched up with sponsors, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
"We're now moving out 300 a day," said FEMA spokesman Jack Glover. "That's not too bad -- we're kind of proud of it. The delays are no more."
Seven volunteer agencies have set up operations at Eglin to locate the friends and relatives of refugees and find sponsors for those who have none. The U.S. Catholic Conference, with a staff of 45, has interviewed between 4,000 and 5,000 Cubans for resettlement. Other groups, such as Church World Services and the International Rescue Committee, are also helping.
The delay in matching refugees with their sponsors in understandable, said John McCarthy of the U.S. Catholic Conference. "We're handling human beings, not tomatoes. These programs take time."
McCarthy said about 1,000 refugees still at Eglin have sponsors but are waiting for transportation. "Eglin is not the greatest airline center in the world," he said. "It is served by Republic Airlines, and that's about it."
Matching up the Cubans with their relatives is not as simple as it sounds. "Sometimes we have to call six times to find a refugee's cousin at home, or, if he doesn't have a phone, we have to send a volunteer to knock on the door. And then we have to make sure the cousin isn't an 80-year-old woman living on relief," McCarthy said.
"Sometimes the relative says, 'I'll take him in my town, but you find him an apartment.'"
Some resettlement workers here, however, say privately that many of the refugees with the Washington clearances already have relatives and sponsors, but that the reunions are being hampered by bureaucratic bungling.
One ranking Air Force source here, who is familiar with the resettlement process, agreed.
"Somebody is just screwing up the paperwork," he said. "This whole thing is a repeat of the 1975 Vietnamese resettlement effort. Things were supposed to go smoothly then. So many people per day were supposed to have been moved out of the camp then.
"But there were screwups then, and there are screwups now.You'd think they would have learned something," the Air Force said. About 300 refugees per day are being moved out of the camp to begin new lives, officials here say. p
Meanwhile, Air Force and other federal officials are working with leaders in an attempt to allay fears spawned by the weekend disturbances at the refugee camp, which is near a middle class residential area. Elected officials from Fort Walton Beach held a closed meeting with the federal people Monday to express their concerns.
Okaloosa County Commissioner Larry Anchors, who represents the neighborhood nearest the camp, said the meeting achieved its purpose. "Obviously, there is divided sentiment here about the refugees," Anchors said. "We have one group that had negative feelings from the start, people who gladly pointed to the weekend incident as proof of their point.
"But we have other people -- and I believe they are in the majority -- who look upon this project as a patriotic duty," the commissioner said.
Anchors said the federal officials assured local leaders that the government would do more to speed up the resettlement process and to maintain peace at the camp. To bolster this peacekeeping promise, the government sent about 75 U.S. marshals to Eglin to monitor the camp's internal security.
As for fear in this predominantly white area that many locals proudly call the "Red Neck Riviera," Anchors said, "I believe people realize that nobody's life is at stake. There is really nothing happening at the camp that can't be handled locally.