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Clinton Hears Refugees’ Stories

May 6, 1999

INGELHEIM, Germany (AP) _ Listening to chilling stories of murder, rape and terror, President Clinton promised refugees Thursday, ``You will go home again in safety and in freedom.″ He said that with Russian agreement on a common approach in Kosovo ``a real peace process″ has begun.

A refugee driven from her village of Dervar told Clinton that ethnic Albanian women dared not have their babies at state-run hospitals. ``They would kill the babies, especially the baby boys,″ she said. Her own son was born at home on the night NATO airstrikes began, March 24.

Women also told of putting mud on their faces to repel would-be Serb rapists. ``They killed my brother and his son, two of my nephews,″ an elderly woman told the president, whose eyes grew moist.

Clinton declared, ``The world will hear your stories.″

The president concluded a fast-paced trip to NATO’s headquarters and Germany as Western allies and Russia agreed on the outlines of a peace formula for Kosovo. Moscow, for the first time, endorsed deployment of an international security force to oversee the peaceful return of refugees.

``This is a significant step forward,″ Clinton said during a stop in Bonn for talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose center-left governing coalition has been shaken by Germany’s first combat since World War II. Schroeder called the agreement with Russia ``truly substantial progress.″

``I think there is a real peace process under way,″ Clinton said, ``but it has no chance of reaching a satisfactory conclusion unless we maintain allied unity and firmness. I don’t think the process is long, but I don’t think we can afford to be discouraged or be impatient.″

However, the accord with Russia was not specific about the type of security presence and did not embrace the West’s insistence that NATO troops play the dominant role, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger acknowledged. Even so, Berger said, ``We’re a lot closer than we were.″

The Russians coming on board _ after weeks of their siding with Yugoslavia in opposition to an international military force _ was an important step, Clinton said, ``and I was personally very pleased by it.″

Even as the diplomacy accelerated, the Pentagon announced that NATO is expanding its attack range. Spokesman Kenneth Bacon said eight U.S. Air Force refueling planes are due to arrive in Hungary this week. He would not comment further, but other officials, speaking privately, said 24 Marine Corps F-A-18 Hornet attack planes also will be based in Hungary as part of a broader buildup of American and NATO air power on the periphery of Serbia.

``I think you’ll find when it’s together and announced that we will have basically a 360-degree attack capability against Yugoslavia,″ Bacon said. He added that even as the diplomacy progresses, NATO’s air campaign will intensify.

Earlier, Clinton visited Ingelheim _ a town known for its red wine _ to visit 334 Kosovo refugees housed in wood-frame barracks at a facility originally built for juvenile delinquents. In interviews, some refugees said they were bored, spending their days listening to the radio and television, reading newspapers and playing table tennis.

They said they hope NATO stages a ground invasion, and they looked forward to returning home _ but not under Serb rule.

On a chilly afternoon under gray skies, the president spoke to refugees on a grassy plot between buildings. He pledged that allied forces would prevail over Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and force Serb troops from Kosovo.

``You must know that you have not been forgotten or abandoned,″ the president said. ``Mr. Milosevic has not succeeded in erasing your identity from the pages of history, and he will not succeed in erasing your presence from the land of your parents and grandparents. You will go home again in safety and in freedom.″

He visited the dormitory quarters of a family of seven adults and two children whose room was equipped with black metal bunk beds and metal lockers.

``We were chased from our homes,″ said Sabit Salihu, 60, a compact man with facial stubble and a beret. ``My home was burned. We were beaten. Everything was stolen from us.″ As he spoke to Clinton, Salihu began to cry. His nephew told of young people being shot and girls being raped.

Some of the refugees at Ingelheim lived in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, and appeared to have come from comfortable backgrounds. They said they were driven from their homes by Serb police who demanded money and gold and forced them onto trains that took them across the border to Blace, Macedonia.

``I’m young but my life is broken from what I’ve seen in Blace,″ a refugee said. ``The first day I arrived I heard that 24 children, infants, had died in the camp of exposure, of starvation.″

Sitting on folding chairs in a corridor outside their cafeteria, refugees spoke bitterly of centuries-old Serb hatred.

``In Kosovo we were like animals,″ a refugee said. ``They would kill us and we just couldn’t say anything about it.″

Clinton asked if they were treated badly because the Serbs wanted their wealth. ``Yes, of course. Naturally, yes,″ was the reply.

Singling out a woman wearing a shirt from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Clinton said, ``I could imagine that any of you could be my neighbors in America.″

A young woman who was a student in Pristina told the president, ``You understood us and you understood our pain. And even if we die, the dying would be easier because we know that somebody knows what we’re going through.″

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