As NATO and Russia continue to work toward resolving the war in Kosovo, officials are growing keenly aware of the mounting importance of time.
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.
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.
Quick refugee return
With fighting now engulfing areas of the Yugoslav-Albanian border, the threat of the same things happening in the Balkans partly explains why NATO, Albania, and Macedonia hope for a swift return of the ethnic Albanian deportees to Kosovo. It is also why UNICEF and other aid groups are running programs designed to ease the anger and frustrations of the youngest deportees. These include primary schools, conflict resolution programs, and counseling for children traumatized by the atrocities they witnessed during their expulsions by Serbian forces.
"Children have a greater capacity to heal," says Jose Juan Ortiz, who oversees UNICEF's programs in camps in the northern Albanian town of Kukes. Yet the challenge is huge. Encouraged at a UNICEF-run play group in one camp to express his feelings, nine-year-old Albert Hasanai won cheers and applause from his friends with a song about a famed Kosovar Albanian rebel leader:
"They [Serbs] killed our fathers, they burned our homes. Arise Adem Jashari and take your revenge."
Later, 14-year-old Arben Feza explains why he wants to join the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA): "The Serbs have killed us, tortured us, burned our houses." His hero is a KLA commander known as "Shala." Asked why, he replies with a smile: "He has killed a lot of Serbs."
The enormous numbers of teenagers and young adults lingering in the camps are a ready-made pool of willing recruits for the KLA. "We will not stop fighting until we get independence," says Nexhat Hyseni, who is awaiting a summons to begin training with the rebels.
Despite NATO's rejection of an independent Kosovo, the KLA and the deportees remain solidly pro-West, buoyed by the alliance's air war against their Serbian foes and its pledges to return them home under the protection of NATO-led international peacekeepers. They are also counting on massive postwar Western aid to rebuild Kosovo, which they envision as a European-style democracy.
But some KLA sources concede that anti-Western sentiment could evolve if NATO agrees to a peace deal that leaves Serbian forces in Kosovo and excludes key alliance powers from the peacekeeping force. The deportees would refuse to return home, the rebels would refuse to disarm, and the West would lose whatever leverage it could exert on the KLA to end the fighting, they say.
KLA hard-liners who dream of uniting all Albanian-inhabited areas in a "Greater Albania" could extend their struggle to the sizable ethnic Albanian minority in Macedonia. KLA sources warn that it would be easy for the rebels to destabilized the fragile former Yugoslav republic as some 2,000 of its fighters are from Macedonia.
Some US officials and experts also worry that the longer the ethnic Albanians remain in the camps, the greater their disillusionment with NATO and the more susceptible younger deportees become to overtures from anti-Western movements, especially Islamic groups.
While Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians are mostly Muslim, few are fervent believers. The KLA, anxious to maintain NATO's support, has spurned military assistance from radical Muslim organizations. Indeed, rebel sources say Islamic fighters from the Middle East and Asia who show up in northern Albania are escorted back to the port of Durres and put on ferries to Italy.
But that could change as it did during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Frustrated by an international arms embargo and enraged by foot-dragging within the UN, the Muslim-led Bosnian army began accepting arms from Muslim states, including Iran. Hundreds of Islamic mercenaries fought with the army against Serbian forces and set up camps that US officials said were being used to train Bosnian Muslims as anti-Western terrorists.