Hesburgh travels to Kosovo to aid in relief
By MATT SMITH
After traveling through Kosovo as an unofficial ambassador for the U.S., University president emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh said he is pleased with the progress made in the war-torn region and is set to build for the future.
"I have hope that if we keep working, we'll have peace in Kosovo," said Hesburgh.
As honorary chairman of the United States Association for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Hesburgh visited areas in and around Kosovo from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4.
He toured camps in Macedonia, where some 40,000 refugees ended up, and said he was very pleased to see that more than half have returned to Kosovo.
"The guy who ran the camp was a Notre Dame guy," said Hesburgh. "The relief effort was wonderful. I talked to a lot of agencies, and I was impressed at the number of young Americans that went over to help, they were all very eager and hard-working."
During Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic's reign of terror, more then 1 million refugees fled to nearby Albania, where families took them in if they had room. Refugee camps, some sponsored by like the Red Cross, also were organized.
Hesburgh pointed out that of the 20,000 refugees that were in America, more than 80 percent have returned home.
"These people were all very anxious to get home," he said.
But home was not the same for most returning families. Hesburgh explained that when families returned to Kosovo, they were given packages including tents, supplies and food, in case their houses were not left standing.
"All over Kosovo, [we saw] people rebuilding houses, except for places that were bombed flat," he said. "Those places will take years to rebuild."
Hesburgh himself stayed in a hotel 100 yards away from a military building in Kosovo that was completely flattened by bombing.
During the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kosovars, fathers in families often were shot, and sons were given 10 minutes to gather their things before being shipped off to the Serbian army. He recalled one story in which a pregnant woman was shot in the head in front of her husband and their eight children.
"All over, you saw people digging graves," Hesburgh said. "I'd go by a cemetery, and there would be four burials at once. Many of these people return to a dead father and a burned down house."
However, various organizations are working to restore peace to the region. Hesburgh met with the general of YKOR, a relief agency in Kosovo that includes soldiers from 40 countries. Most troops are from the United States, Britain, Germany and France. They are training a police core that will one day replace soldiers as keepers of peace.
Hesburgh's traveling group was constantly in touch with YKOR by hand-radio for safety reasons because most other means of communication in the region were destroyed.
Hesburgh said the next step is to aid the returning and remaining refugees through the harsh winter and to remove the 20,000 hostile Serbians that remain in Kosovo.
"In the future, forgiveness and recognition are most important," said Hesburgh. "They must resolve religious conflict, and move toward peace. I think they are going to make it."
"Milosevic is failing," he explained. "When [the Serbians] got to Kosovo, they were losing their empire, so they got tough. Without the bombing [by NATO countries], it would have been another Serbia."
He explained that it is very unlikely NATO will let the Serbians back into Kosovo. He said one day he "could see [Kosovo] being independent," but his immediate concerns center around the need for continued support in the region: "With the crisis in East Timor, I hope volunteer fatigue doesn't set in."
Hesburgh, 82, said the trip was a wonderful opportunity and he was glad to do it, but he said, "By the end of it, I really felt my age."
Despite the seemingly slow progress toward peace in the region, Hesburgh explained one very uplifting experience. "One Sunday, just outside of Albania, a bunch of Kosovars in their Sunday best were walking up a hill as we drove by," he said.
"We stopped the car to look around. Around 20,000 people were going to a shrine of our lady of the rosary on the hilltop. They all had Catholic Mass right on this hill, old and young, with blue skies and birds flying overhead."
All News Stories for Wednesday, October 13, 1999