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Refugee camps raising radicals

Delays in diplomacy, prospects for return, fuel anger of ethnic

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 1999


As NATO and Russia continue to work toward resolving the war in Kosovo, officials are growing keenly aware of the mounting importance of time.

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One issue involves resettling Kosovar refugees before the Balkan winter takes hold. Another growing concern: The longer NATO fails to return refugees home, the greater the danger that the camps in Albania and Macedonia will turn into cauldrons of nationalist and religious zealotry that could threaten the region for years.

One of the lessons of camps filled with Palestinian refugees, Afghans, and Sri Lankans is that those camps were the birthplace of violent groups that destabilized their regions.

Already, among the young Kosovar refugees, their heroes are no longer sports or film stars, but combat-hardened rebels. They aspire not to become doctors or teachers, but gun-wielding avengers of families murdered and a homeland plundered.

And the songs they not sing are not songs of love or adventure, but of revolution and the violence that has left almost 1 million of them a stateless people in Europe.

It is a Serb custom to enter our homes at night ... They slaughter by day and kill during the night to terrorize Kosovo.

So goes a poem recited by young Kosovar Albanians now lingering by the tens of thousands in refugee camps - pressure cookers in which their anger is slowly being magnified by boredom and despair.

"If you have an ethnic group that has lost its homeland and is living in squalid refugee camps, there is a potential for militancy," warns an American official. Adds Penelope Lewis, a United Nations International Children's Education Fund (UNICEF) spokeswoman: "There is a great danger of the younger boys being indoctrinated ... or turning to violence."

These apprehensions are well grounded. Refugee camps in other parts of the world have for much of the last half of this century produced founders and recruits of numerous political and religious radical groups. Many of them are anti-Western and most come to have destabilizing impacts on the host countries from whose soil they wage their struggles.

Palestinian terrorism

The Palestinian factions that battled Israel and hijacked aircraft were born in the dust and destitution of overcrowded camps in the Occupied Territories, Jordan, and Lebanon. The virtual states-within-states that operated from camps in the latter two countries ignited wars with their host governments and led to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Sri Lanka's Tamil rebels were recruited in refugee camps in India, whose former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, they assassinated in 1991 after he tried to crush their independence drive.

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement was forged by Afghan refugees inculcated in Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Western zealotry in camps run by Muslim clerics in Pakistan.

Refugee camps "breed ... kids who take violence for granted, for whom the cause is their only occupation," says Marvin Weinbaum, an expert on Afghanistan at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "They have lost touch with an economy and for them the only employment is as a fighter."

Agrees Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Washington office of the RAND Corp., a think tank: "It's a symbiotic process. Generally, camps are of substandard or inadequate accommodation. There is a dearth of economic opportunities and a tremendous amount of anger. This produces a very volatile mixture, especially in those traditions where you can call upon some cultural or historical legacy of resistance or fighting."

But camps can be more than incubators of political and religious radicalism. In Africa, Hutu rebels use camps in nearby nations as bases for raids into Rwanda. As Cambodia's Khmer Rouge guerrillas did in Thailand during the 1980s, the Hutu rebels perpetuate their movement by controlling camps and refusing to allow Hutu refugees to return home.