The unhappiest allies

Italians question NATO moves in Kosovo as the country braces for more refugees.

Published March 26, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

ROME -- As NATO jets took off from military bases up and down Italy Thursday, Italian authorities lined up mobile homes and cleaned out military barracks in preparation for the arrival of thousands of refugees displaced by the fighting in Kosovo, while struggling with deep ambivalence about the conflict.

In the second day of military action against Serbia, Italy was trying to get used to the idea of being on the front lines of a conflict in which it is not a direct participant. Under the NATO plan, the bombing sorties were led mostly by British, American, German and Spanish aircraft, while the Italian military was charged with the task of patrolling its own coasts in the highly unlikely event of Serbian retaliation.

Italy's sizable left wing has always been uncomfortable with the country's membership in NATO, which it considers an American-dominated imperialist organization. Less than 24 hours after the bombings began, Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, a former Communist, insisted it was time to halt the strikes and return to diplomacy.

At a European Union summit meeting in Berlin on Thursday, D'Alema said that a new "scenario is opening in Kosovo" and that "the time to hand matters over to politics and diplomacy is approaching." The abrupt opposition after just one day of an extensive bombing campaign was taken as an affront by other NATO allies and Washington in particular. Relations between Italy and the U.S. were already tense after the Marines acquitted Richard Ashby, the pilot whose jet severed a gondola cable in the Italian Alps last year, sending 20 passengers plunging to their deaths. D'Alema expressed his outrage at the acquittal during a meeting with President Clinton in Washington on March 5.

Meanwhile, a heated debate in the Italian parliament was under way as D'Alema's far-left allies threatened to yank their support from his government if Italy allowed the use of its soldiers in any attacks. But despite the effort of left-wing members of parliament to keep Italy out of the conflict -- which, given the history of the Italian left, is a dog-bites-man story -- the country stands to play a major role in the Kosovo conflict simply by virtue of its geographical proximity.

In effect, the wave of refugees that Italy was nervously awaiting this week is merely the intensification of a phenomenon that has been going on for more than a year. Long before NATO began to make threats to Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic, the effects of his aggressive military campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were washing up on Italian shores. Since the violence began, thousands of Kosovars -- no one knows exactly how many -- have fled their homes and crossed into neighboring Albania, where they pay smugglers about $600 for passage in a rubber raft across the Adriatic into Italy. The trip can take as little as 75 minutes.

Prior to last October's peace agreement, it was common for police in Italy's southern coastal region of Puglia to round up several hundred Kosovars at once. Often, entire families with infant children were found huddled along the shore.

On Thursday, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata said that 443,500 people, or one in four Kosovo residents, had been displaced by fighting.

For this reason, Italy has been acutely sensitive to potential fallout from any NATO military operation. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that during a White House meeting with President Clinton earlier this month, D'Alema asked what NATO would do if Milosevic refused to back down after the planned bombing raids. According to the Post report, Clinton was silent and then turned the question over to National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, who replied, "We will continue the bombing."

That is exactly the type of policy that Italy fears most. Worried that after the jets return home, Italy will be left to clean up the refugee mess, D'Alema and his foreign minister, Lamberto Dini, have appealed to everyone from the European Union to NATO to help share the burden.

So far, the arrivals have been light. On Thursday, police found 62 refugees in Puglia. They said they had been able to pass into Albania several days earlier and waited for weather conditions to improve before boarding a smuggler's raft for Italy.

In addition to the humanitarian tragedy that could result from a massive refugee wave, Italy runs other risks as well. The country is in an ongoing battle with the Albanian smugglers who regularly unload refugees in Italy, as well as with illegal immigrants seeking entrance into Europe.

Albania, Europe's poorest country and an all-but-lawless land, openly admits that it is woefully unable to control the smugglers, who transport drugs in addition to people. It has invited the Italian army onto its soil in a limited capacity to help control the traffic. But the arrival of thousands of refugees threatens to bring the smuggling racket -- which is already the major industry in port cities like Vlore -- to new heights.

The smugglers are modern-day pirates who live completely outside the law. They cram as many as 35 people in small rubber rafts with powerful outboard motors, and prefer to have at least two children aboard on each trip. That way, when the Italian coast guard catches up with them, they can hoist the infants up in the air, threatening to toss them overboard if they are stopped. The coast guard usually responds to the threat by backing off. In order to avoid being apprehended when they arrive at the Italian shore, they usually force their passengers to jump off when they are still about 150 yards out to sea. A number of refugees have made it to within feet of the Italian shore, only to drown at the last minute.

It is not just the Kosovars who have made the smugglers rich. Because Albania has become known throughout the Mediterranean as a smugglers' mecca and an easy way into the European Union, thousands of Kurds fleeing oppression in Iraq and southeastern Turkey have also hitched a ride into Italy on the rubber rafts. All efforts to dislodge the smugglers have proved futile.

For the moment, however, the refugee crisis seems to be far enough away from Italy. For this, the Italians have Milosevic to thank. Serbian forces have heavily mined the border between Kosovo and Albania. As a result, about 20,000 refugees have spilled into Macedonia, on Kosovo's eastern border, instead.

On Thursday, Macedonia's prime minister complained that his tiny country was being overwhelmed. "If responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo rests on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic," said Ljubco Georgievski, "then the spillover of this catastrophe here is the responsibility of the U.S. and the E.U."

But the volatile situation could change quickly. Albanian authorities reported late Thursday that several hundred refugees had crossed into Albania and that as many as 3,000 more were massed at the border. Those who made it in said they had witnessed mass executions of ethnic Albanians that same day in the village of Godem.

By Gabriel Kahn

Gabriel Kahn is managing editor of Italy Daily, the Italian supplement to the International Herald Tribune.

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