The Refugee Imperative

At some point, nato's might will be needed to open the way for hundreds of thousands of refugees to return to Kosovo. But the alliance's immediate task is to provide for the survival of those people so they can return.

Their needs run the gamut: food, pure water, shelter, sanitary conditions, and basic health care. The small nations taking the brunt of the exodus from Kosovo - particularly Albania and Macedonia - are inundated.

Western alliance countries are offering temporary asylum to more than 100,000 refugees. They have also pledged millions of dollars in relief supplies. Transporting those supplies into the region has just begun.

The people who will find refuge far from the Balkans are likely to be only a fraction of the total. As of this writing, nearly 400,000 have fled rampaging Serb forces in Kosovo. That figure will mount in the days ahead.

Macedonia is near the breaking point, faced with 136,000 refugees. Many Macedonians worry their country's fragile ethnic balance is threatened. Efforts to fly refugees out of the area are correctly focussed on Macedonia. Turkey has already received the first few planeloads.

Albania is taking the largest share of refugees. As Europe's poorest nation, its resources are scant. But Albanians' willingness to open their homes to refugees has been remarkable.

NATO is establishing a greater presence in Albania, both to help with refugee relief and to strengthen its ability, via helicopters, to hit Serb forces in Kosovo.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tried to prepare for the Kosovo outflow. But UNHCR expected that only around 100,000 would flee the province. Relief agencies, like Western governments, did not anticipate the scale of Belgrade's terror campaign.

That campaign can't be allowed to succeed. Despite the movement of some refugees to distant havens, ultimately these people must be helped to rebuild their homes and communities in Kosovo. That will require significant NATO intervention on the ground.

Public support for that task is building in Europe and the US - impelled by the pictures and stories coming from refugee camps. Any reasonable end to this tragedy - whether by force of arms or the still-preferable route of negotiations - must include the return of refugees.

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