Hillary does Brazda

Another day, another celebrity visit to Macedonian refugee camps


Rob Mank
May 14, 1999 1:00PM (UTC)

Richard Gere, Bianca Jagger, Vanessa Redgrave: They're names one might expect to find on the guest list of a swanky Hollywood party, not on the list of official visitors to a southern European backwater. Add UNICEF representative Roger Moore to the mix and it's just an average week in Macedonia.

They have all traveled to the Balkans in recent days as good will ambassadors, bringing to the refugees messages of hope and compassion. But Friday was an exceptional day at the refugee camp known as Brazda. Liridon Maliqu, a 15-year-old Kosovar refugee who volunteers with the Catholic Relief Services in the camp, was posted at the rear gate, charged with security detail. Chief among Maliqu's duties was keeping the children clear of the vehicles in the entourage of Friday's celebrity visitor -- Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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Of the quarter million or so Kosovar Albanians who have fled to Macedonia since the beginning of Slobodan Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" campaign, more than 82,000 continue to be housed in camps here. Young Maliqu said the mood of the camp was elevated because the refugees had gotten word about their famous visitor. He watched over a group of children, who splashed about gleefully in a stream near the gate, before Clinton arrived.

To the ethnic Albanians occupying these vast, dusty tent cities, just as important as the politics and kindness of these visits is the ceremony and the excitement they bring -- for even on the best days, when the temperatures remain bearable, food lines aren't quite as long and the vast bureaucracy of the place doesn't overwhelm, life in the camps is unspeakably boring.

Waves of staff and security preceded Clinton's arrival. Press sections were cordoned off, and refugees who didn't live in the area she was to visit were kept behind fences. Workers in the camp had been preparing for days. "I spent three days excusing myself, entering tents and explaining the importance of this visit to people here," said Aurvasi Patel, a UNHCR field manager.

Shefqet Qerimi, 45, an elementary school teacher from Gilan before he left Kosovo, stood nearby and surveyed the preparations for Clinton's visit. He said he believes celebrity visits are important to the refugees' morale. "The atmosphere changes at the camp," he said, "It's a thrill."

Clinton stopped over at the camp for just about an hour Friday, visiting with Kosovar refugees as well as with the relief workers that run Brazda. She toured a small section, paying a visit to camp B-214; briefly its inhabitants were the focus of world media attention.

After the First Lady's departure, Sadik Prunaj, who lives in B-214 with his family, was grateful for their famous visitor, and her message. "I thank Mrs. Hillary for visiting us in this hard circumstance," he said, "She gives us hope about going back to Kosovo."

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Surrounded by a group of refugees, the first lady emphasized the need for empathy from those who experience the Kosovo crisis only though the media. "It's easy when we see these pictures [of refugees] ... to get immune to what it's like ... I keep putting myself in the faces and the stories ... we all should," she said.

Meanwhile, the relief community took pains to welcome her, as it has the rest of its high-profile visitors. The UNHCR's Patel admitted the relief organizations need the attention brought by celebrities as much as the refugees. "That's where we get our funds," she said. The UNHCR is a media-savvy organization, she added, "well aware of how public perception is shaped."


Rob Mank

Rob Mank is a journalist based in New York. He reported on the Kosovo conflict for Salon News.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton



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