Visiting a tent city where tens of thousands of Kosovo refugees have been camped for weeks, President Clinton held a young boy on his lap, hugged a sobbing woman and called on the cheering refugees to delay returning to their homeland lest they fall victim to land mines.
"I don't want any child hurt; I don't want anyone else to lose a leg or an arm," Clinton said during a tour of the Stenkovic I refugee camp here near the Macedonia-Kosovo border.
Making his first visit to the Balkans since NATO launched an 11-week air war that drove Serb-led Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, Clinton came face to face today with the people who he said were the main reason for going to war. Although they expressed delight at seeing the U.S. president and gratitude for his leadership in defeating their oppressors, the refugees also voiced frustration that NATO's military action did not come sooner or protect them from atrocities at the hands of Yugoslav security forces.
"We love him a lot . . . because he sort of saved us from a war," said Regjie Hamidi, 25, who fled to Macedonia two months ago from his home in the eastern Kosovo town of Gjilane. "He's very welcome here, but we wish it had ended sooner. I would have liked things to happen faster."
Another refugee, Isa Muftari, 25, remarked that "it could have been over in a week," but the alliance did not hurry because American and allied officials were unwilling to accept casualties.
Addressing about 1,000 refugees from the Serbian province, Clinton declared that "NATO and the United States did the right thing" in launching the air campaign, because the Belgrade government's ruthless military offensive against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian rebels and civilians breached the rules of wartime behavior considered acceptable by the United States and its people.
"No one ever, ever should be punished and discriminated against or killed or uprooted because of their religion or their ethnic heritage," Clinton said. Saying that a U.S. president never acts alone, he added, "It is the American people who care about you, who believe in you, who want you to be able to go home."
The president also used his visit to express appreciation to the leaders of Albania and Macedonia for helping house most of the more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians who fled Kosovo or were driven out by Yugoslav troops and Serbian police and paramilitary forces. He also promised $12 million in additional U.S. food aid to Macedonia and pledged to continue helping the region's hard-pressed economies.
Speaking without notes on a small outdoor stage, Clinton dealt gingerly with the possibility that some returning Kosovo refugees might lash out at Serbian civilians in revenge for the actions of government security forces accused of executing thousands of ethnic Albanians and destroying thousands of homes.
"We are committed not only to making Kosovo safe," he said, "but to helping people rebuild their lives, rebuild their communities, and then to helping Kosovo and all the countries of the region build a brighter, more prosperous future based on respect for the human rights of all people."
The mood at the sprawling camp was convivial, although some refugees expressed anxiety about the devastation they have heard about inside Kosovo, where food and shelter are in short supply. The camp once held more than 30,000 refugees, and tensions have occasionally flared into fistfights. But as NATO peacekeeping troops have moved into Kosovo, hundreds of refugees here have been returning home each day, shaving the camp's population to 10,000. U.N. refugee officials estimated that nearly 150,000 ethnic Albanians who fled Kosovo have returned home under NATO protection -- about one-sixth of the total.
Each of the refugees that Clinton, the first lady and their daughter, Chelsea, met in the camp had been interviewed in advance by refugee aid officials, so their accounts contained no surprises. But he heard first-hand of the slight impact the NATO bombing had on the Belgrade government's military offensive and its widespread human rights abuses in the first 10 weeks of the air war -- knowledge that may have contributed to his solemn demeanor.
When he stopped by the tent of Farie Vokshi, 37, she told him that 13 members of her family were executed by Yugoslav troops on March 29 in the southwestern Kosovo town of Ljubenic. "I don't know where to go," she said. "No one in my family is left there."
Vokshi said later that Clinton told her he was very sorry for what happened and tried to make her feel "this will get better." But she remained teary-eyed after he departed and asked a visitor, "What can we do? We cannot wake them up from the dead."
Musli Kushini, 50, who had affixed a "Welcome President Clinton" sign to his tent along with postcard portraits of the president and the first lady provided by White House advance men, had an equally grim tale. He said that men wearing black masks "killed my mother and father" at his home near the eastern city of Gjilane on March 30.
Kushini said Clinton responded that "he was very sorry for all that happened in Kosovo and that . . . America will try to ease your pain" by helping to reconstruct the province and ensuring all its citizens can enjoy freedom. Kushini's wife Nafie said later: "It felt like a relief to have him here."
The president also promised the refugees that the United States will help rebuild their homes. But his administration has not yet defined the scope of its assistance program, and U.S. officials said significant reconstruction aid is unlikely to be delivered soon. A team of U.S. experts is slated to begin a formal survey of the total housing damage on Wednesday, but its initial efforts will be aimed at ensuring that families have a single dry room to live in.
A spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, asked how many residents will eventually benefit from housing assistance, said, "No one has that information, and no one wants to venture a guess."
Hundreds of refugees who pressed against a low wire barrier to hear the president's speech repeatedly chanted "USA!" and "Clinton! Clinton!" The president, wearing a dark green shirt, khaki pants and boots, hugged children as they sprang from tents to greet him. Sitting on a cot next to a tent that said "Gift of the United States of America," Chelsea Clinton held a small boy on her lap, while her father held another.
The children's parents, speaking through an interpreter, said they came to the camp from the Kosovo capital, Pristina, where they said they saw Yugoslav troops demand money from people while threatening a 4-year-old boy with a knife and a lighted cigarette.
"You have a beautiful boy," the president said as his entourage prepared to move on. The child's mother replied: "He's still very much afraid. He has suffered very much. He has seen people killed and wounded."
The refugees in the audience almost universally singled Clinton out, along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as the two Western leaders who did the most to help them, while making less complimentary remarks about the leaders of France and Russia.
Clinton "brought us freedom; he made the Serbs leave," said Elhame Buqu, 25, a resident of the southern city of Kacanik who lost seven members of her family in the Yugoslav offensive. "Without the bombing, [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic would never understand."
After speaking to the refugees, Clinton addressed members of the NATO peacekeeping force near Skopje, the Macedonian capital, 12 miles southeast of here. He then flew to Aviano Air Base in Italy to address pilots and other U.S. military personnel who took part in the 78-day air campaign.
As a crowd of hundreds cheered and whooped, Clinton said: "I did not want to leave without having the chance to thank those of you who protect our freedom every single day, who fought for human dignity and won its cause in Kosovo. Thank you, thank you, thank you."
CAPTION: Clinton comforts a woman at Stenkovic camp, where he heard first-hand of the suffering in Kosovo.
CAPTION: An ebullient young girl at Stenkovic I refugee camp shouts, "Go Clinton! Go NATO!" at the president's security detail.
CAPTION: First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton shares a laugh at Skopje airport with British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, commander of the Kosovo peacekeeping force, left.