MORINA, ALBANIA AND PARIS — As ethnic Albanians deported from Kosovo pass through the rusting gates of this Albanian border crossing, Staffan de Mistura's blue baseball cap bobs amid the dusty throng.
Its wearer seems to be everywhere at once: passing water to wagonloads of refugees, helping those on foot into trucks bound for camps in nearby Kukes, directing blanket handouts, and chasing off local kids trying to filch food packets.
"Welcome," Mr. de Mistura says to a family crammed inside a tiny car trundling across the frontier. "It's over. You are safe."
An official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), de Mistura is a soldier in the army of aid workers striving to help Albania to shelter waves of Kosovo refugees.
Many have worked elsewhere, from Iraq to Somalia, Afghanistan to Zaire (Congo), where they say conditions were far worse. But almost all the humanitarian relief professionals here cite one thing above all that makes this disaster different: This is Europe.
Not since the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 have so many European refugees been housed in tented camps. Suddenly the sights and smells of African and Asian crises - serried ranks of tents, refugees lined up for food, smoke from wood fires - have come to a continent that believed itself beyond such things.
Veterans of refugee tides point out that in simple numerical terms, the more than 650,000 Kosovars who have fled to neighboring Macedonia and Albania are only one-tenth of the number of refugees currently eking out an existence in Africa. And 20 years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 2.6 million Afghans still live outside their homeland.
And though aid workers have run into problems in Albania, most of them agree that they have had to deal with much, much worse in the past. "It is inevitable that agencies will have problems," says Mike McDonaugh of Concern Worldwide, a private Irish relief group. "We are working in a place that is strange to us. But compared to other countries, they are nothing."
That does not mean it has been easy caring for the more than 420,000 ethnic Albanians who have flooded into Albania from Kosovo, nor the 240,000 forced into Macedonia since NATO began bombing Yugoslavia March 24.
Perhaps the biggest problem was the failure of aid agencies and governments to anticipate the breadth and fury of Serbian "ethnic cleansing," making for too slow a response to the humanitarian crisis. "I have never seen in my 29 years of professional life such a systematic, organized, and diabolically planned mass deportation," says de Mistura, an aristocratic-looking Swede whose father was an Italian political refugee. "Rwanda was awful, but this is more planned."
At the same time, adds Robert Yallop, head of overseas operations for CARE Australia, "in some senses it was somewhat easier" to help Rwandan refugees "because their expectations were so much lower. You could give a Rwandan some plastic sheeting and he would make shelter himself," not a skill that many relatively urban Kosovars possess.
On the other hand, though the weather in the Balkans has turned from icy rain to sweltering heat since the war began, and officials have begun to ration water in Kukes, northern Albania, the climate is not as challenging as in Africa. Nor is good hygiene so difficult to maintain.
"There is electricity here, there is ... drinkable water," points out Antonio Kamil Mikhail, a UNHCR security specialist who remembers thousands of Rwandan refugees in Zaire dying of cholera during the civil war there.
In Albania, there is also a welcoming government. Aid workers are effusive in praising the cooperation of the cash-strapped Albanian government. They contrast it to the anarchy they have faced in countries like Somalia, where their efforts to feed millions of people became entangled in the struggles of rival warlords and international power politics.
"Here there is a clear ethnic solidarity," says Gemmo Lodesani, a veteran UN World Food Program official. "They [the Albanian government] have a real concern for the refugees. They are poor, they are broke. But they try."
A functioning government can at least provide security. Although bandits are on the loose in northern Albania, they pose nothing like the problem that robbers did in Somalia, where US and European soldiers had to ride shotgun on emergency food convoys.
In Macedonia and Albania, those soldiers are building refugee camps instead, and earning kudos from civilian aid workers for their efficiency as NATO makes its first foray into humanitarian relief operations.
"We would not have coped if it had not been for the assistance of the German military," says Mr. Yallop, whose agency is managing a refugee camp in Cegrami, in Macedonia. As the camp population grew from 2,000 to 33,000 in a week, "we were able to avert what could have been a catastrophe" thanks to the German Corps of Engineers, he says.
In Macedonia and Albania, transport is difficult. Getting supplies to the isolated Kukes region in northern Albania, where most of the Kosovo refugees have been arriving, is hard because only one road links it with the rest of the country.
It is dangerous, potted with holes and prone to wandering livestock and hazardous drivers. Three aid workers and their driver were killed last month when their vehicle plunged into a ravine. Yet, notes Mr. Mikail, "we can complain about the potholes, but they are nothing compared to potholes in Kissagani that could break your car."
To make things easier, a landing strip outside Kukes was recently completed, allowing planes to fly supplies in, rather than more expensive helicopters.
But beyond the logistics, the numbers, and the practical business of looking after hundreds of thousands of homeless people, many aid workers speak about a problem in Albania that they have encountered nowhere else. Working in Africa or Asia, they say, is made somewhat easier by the lack of direct identification with the victims of wars or disasters. It is hard to maintain such detachment on your own doorstep. "This place is not as bad as 10 places I've been to. Yet it has affected me and other aid workers far more than other places," says Mr. McDonaugh.