BOSTON — It is no longer news to report that aid work is often difficult and dangerous. CARE, as just one organization, has lost 117 staff members over the past two decades: men and women who have died while advancing our humanitarian mission.
What is news, however, is that now the host government can throw aid workers into jail. In Belgrade, three of our staff remain in prison after more than 130 days, convicted of passing "secret" information to an international organization, namely to CARE offices around the world. They are thus being held prisoner essentially for having done their humanitarian jobs.
Their convictions raise serious questions about the ability of humanitarian aid organizations to work in Yugoslavia and other areas of conflict.
The background goes like this. On March 31, Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace, Australian nationals, were detained at the Yugoslav border with Croatia. Border guards found a satellite phone, computers, maps, and situation reports in their vehicles. One week later, another CARE colleague, Branko Jelen, a Yugoslav national, was also taken into custody.
In May, a military court tried the three for operating and managing a spy ring, and working for a foreign intelligence agency. The evidence against them, by all accounts, was limited or non-existent. The court dismissed the original indictment, but then, in a bizarre twist, convicted the three on the entirely new charge of passing information to CARE. Their sentences were reduced on appeal in July from 12 years to 8 for Mr. Pratt, six to three for Mr. Jelen, and four to one for Mr. Wallace.
Ironically, the three men had been helping Serbian refugees displaced by earlier conflict in Bosnia and Croatia. CARE started assisting people in Yugoslavia after World War II, and returned to the Balkans when conflict broke out in the early 1990s. Its mandate is to help all people, irrespective of ethnic group.
Working from CARE's Belgrade office, Pratt was expected to report to his headquarters on the security risks facing his staff and the Serbian refugees they were serving. Nothing secret here. He passed along updates about logistical difficulties (problems with fuel and satellite phones), details about how and when staff were being evacuated from Belgrade, and general observations about increased fighting in northern Drenica, CARE's operational area.
On March 20, he wrote: "There is mayhem and brutality in the field and [we] feel terribly powerless to respond." Up until March 31, the three men had been receiving positive feedback from the Yugoslav government about CARE's efforts to provide supplies, medicines, and fuel to 70,000 refugees in 600 different centers.
Last week the three men appealed to President Slobodan Milosevic for clemency. It may take weeks before a decision is made. The good news is that scores of world leaders, including Pope John Paul II, Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, Mary Robinson, Mark Malloch Brown, Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson, Victor Chernomyrdin, and Martti Ahtisaari, have sought to free the CARE captives.
We urge the international community to press for the release of the three CARE captives. We also call upon the Yugoslav government to demonstrate its good faith toward working with the international humanitarian community. Yugoslavia should grant our colleagues clemency and let them return to their families. In the weeks, months, and years to come, Yugoslavia will need more humanitarian workers who feel secure enough to do their work.
The continued imprisonment of the CARE workers puts all humanitarian workers in Yugoslavia at risk.
*Peter D. Bell is president and CEO of CARE USA, the international relief and development organization based in Atlanta. It is one of 10 CARE organizations around the world that form CARE International.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society