Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 28
6 April 1999

Andrew Stroehlein W A R :
One Little Square
Equals 10,000 People

Andrew Stroehlein

Every day, like millions of other people around the world this week, I turn to the newspapers, radio, television and Internet to find out what is happening in the war between NATO and Milosevic. I also turn to one webpage that has a depressing, regularly updated graphic. On the BBC's pages one can find a field of 180 little, coloured squares, diagramming the refugee situation in and around Kosovo. Each square represents 10,000 people in the original Kosovo, and the squares change colours as those people change status: from green (at home), to red (displaced within Kosovo), to yellow (displaced, now outside of Kosovo). Every day, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides the numbers which result in more red and yellow boxes. If one needs some sort of graphic representation of what NATO is trying to do in the Balkans today, then certainly this is it: keep as many of those squares green as possible.

"Each square equals 10,000 people," the graphic says. Of course, one finds this entire crisis hard to fathom no matter what numbers and graphics are used. One hears that one quarter of the population of Kosovo has already been uprooted. One reads that this many are in need of food, this many are expected to die of exhaustion and disease. One watches as the images and numbers flash by on the TV screen, but the enormity of the desperate situation confounds us. The BBC's simple graphic is striking for its simplicity.

The BBC's representation of the refugee situation is a daily scorecard of the humanitarian crisis in the region. It is essential to remember, however, that those squares were changing colour long before NATO became involved: that is, 290,000 Kosovo Albanians had fled the province before NATO's action ever started (according to the British newspaper The Independent, though the UNHCR's figures are actually higher).

Commentary in both the Czech Republic, the UK and USA in the past ten days has often been horribly inappropriate. In particular, I am astounded that anyone could blame NATO for the humanitarian catastrophe in and around Kosovo.

Are they NATO forces that knock on doors in Pristina and tell the inhabitants they have four minutes to evacuate their home? Are they NATO forces who compare the names of those in the house with their own lists and march away those named to execution? Are they NATO forces that emptied the town of Pec, where 100,000 people once lived? Are they NATO forces who shot dead human rights lawyer Bajram Kelmendi and his sons?

Are they NATO forces that are confiscating the identification documents of Kosovo Albanians? Are they NATO forces that drive 2500 people onto trains that hold 500? Are they NATO forces that steal their hard currency and any remaining valuables at the border?

Is it NATO that has been carrying out such atrocities and starting wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and now Kosovo? Is it NATO that forced 250,000 to 300,000 refugees to flee Kosovo before 24 March?

The only blame NATO bears at present is that it is not doing enough - just as the UN troops defending Srebrenica in the Bosnian conflict did not do enough, when, in 1995, Serbian forces committed mass-murder upon as many as 8,000 people taking refuge in the UN-declared "safe area." If NATO bears responsibility for the Kosovo tragedy, it is because it has not been doing enough to stop Milosevic - or is now doing too little too late.

But better late than never.

Finally, 290,000 refugees later, the international community decided to do something to stop a genocide in progress. We did little or nothing against Pol Pot in Cambodia, little or nothing in Rwanda a few years ago; those episodes of inaction were rightfully condemned by many at the time. Now, some politicians are doing something - however little or late - and they get unfairly, and ludicrously blamed for the genocide they are trying to stop.

Just imagine that, at the end of World War II, when the Germans cleared the concentration camps ahead of the Allied advance, someone blamed the advancing Allies for the Nazi-led death marches. Absurd. NATO is no more responsible for the horror of the current genocide in Kosovo than the Allied forces were for those death marches at the end of World War II. Put the blame for the horror where it rightfully belongs.

For once, some Western politicians are doing the right thing in foreign affairs. In the fight to keep those little squares green - in the fight to prevent further genocide in Kosovo - those Western leaders should be supported.

Andrew Stroehlein, 6 April 1999


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