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HERO'S WELCOME; CLINTON URGES KOSOVARS TO FORGIVE.

Byline: James Warren Chicago Tribune

President Clinton received a hero's welcome Tuesday from cheering, American-flag-waving Kosovar Albanians, who quickly lapsed into silence when he urged them to forgive their Serb neighbors and shape a new Kosovo.

Five months after the NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian forces from Kosovo, Clinton spoke at an athletic complex in the Yugoslav province, telling a crowd of nearly 2,000 that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic ``wanted to take control of Kosovo by getting rid of you all, and we said no!''

Chants of ``CLIN-TON! CLIN-TON!'' rang out, a resounding affirmation for the president and U.S. officials seated nearby, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, many of whom spearheaded the 78-day NATO bombing campaign against the forces of Milosevic.

But after asserting that they faced ``no more days hiding in cellars, no more nights freezing in mountains and forests,'' Clinton urged the ethnic Albanians to set aside their mutual animosity with the Serbs, who conducted a brutal purge of Kosovar's Albanians during the Kosovo campaign.

``You can never forget the injustice that was done to you,'' Clinton said. ``No one can force you to forget what was done to you. But you must try.''

At each pause during the president's remarks, a translation was read aloud. And when this line was completed, there was little sound to be heard, perhaps a few claps.

``Children are not born hating those who are different from them, and no religion teaches them to do so,'' he continued, asking his audience to forget ``hatred and past wrongs and getting even'' and to focus instead on good schools, new homes, new businesses and honest self-government. The translation again was met with silence.

A 30-ish mother of two, sitting in the bleachers at the complex, was unequivocal about the prospect of one day living peacefully with the Serbs.

``I can never live with them,'' she said.

Nearby, a mother of three was asked about her children's future and their willingness to discard an older generation's prejudices. ``They afraid very much (of the Serbs),'' she said.

Clinton, who was wrapping up a 10-day European trip, basked in the adulation of the Albanian Kosovars after an airport meeting in Pristina with Bernard Kouchner, the top United Nations official in Kosovo, and others.

According to Albright, Kouchner reiterated his frustration with funding of the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, as well as the slow pace in adding 5,000 civilian police. About 1,700 police are now on duty, as Kosovo struggles with high crime rates in its efforts to establish the rudiments of civil society.

``Things are a mess,'' said a former deputy county sheriff from Tennessee, who is working in Kosovo as a U.N. police officer. ``Even traffic control is a problem since people simply don't want to stop for one another at four-way intersections.''

There are 7,000 U.S. military personnel in Kosovo, part of a 40,000 NATO force dubbed KFOR. Clinton took a brief helicopter ride to see the nerve center of the American operation, arriving for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner and expression of thanks to troops at chilly, snow-filled Camp Bondsteel.

The 1,000-acre encampment, in southeastern Kosovo amid rugged mountains, is the largest temporary foreign base constructed since the Vietnam War and home to as many as 5,000 soldiers and support personnel.

Dispensing with the suit, white dress shirt and necktie worn earlier, Clinton donned beige khaki pants, a sports shirt and a windbreaker with ``Commander-In-Chief'' across the right breast and ``KFOR/NATO'' on the left.

He ducked into several barracks to shake hands and take what were the first of dozens of photos with appreciative soldiers.

``Hey, I have to have a shot of my home girl

'' Clinton said upon hearing that one waving soldier was Maj. Jimmie Keenan of Murfreesboro, Ark., chief nurse at the combat support hospital.

Keenan, who has been in Kosovo for six months, said her unit has dealt with 124 trauma patients. ``I feel as if we're really making a difference,'' she said.

Clinton was cheered by hundreds of troops as he entered a large, recreation-like Festival Tent, to Bruce Springsteen's ``Born to Run.''

``Thanks to you we have reversed ethnic cleansing,'' the president told the troops. ``We have a successful military mission which was brilliantly executed, with no combat casualties. And now, we have a chance - not a guarantee, but a chance - to work with these folks to build a lasting piece in the Balkans.''

He finished up at the nearby dining hall with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, albeit 48 hours early. The president went through the buffet and on a plate stacked a big turkey leg, stuffing, sweet potatoes and cranberries, while on a second plate he had a serving of shrimp and a salad.

Later, having again worked the entire room and shaken dozens of hands, he spoke to all by noting that, on Thanksgiving, he'll be home ``and you will be a long way from home.''

``But you will be in our hearts, and I hope you know that what you're doing is a great gift to your country. Thank you very much.''

With ample aerial fanfare, Clinton hopped a helicopter and flew to an airfield to catch a two-hour cargo flight to Italy, where he boarded Air Force One. He was expected back in the United States by early evening, ending his 45th foreign trip, which took him to Turkey, Greece, Italy and Kosovo.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo: (1 -- color) President Clinton on Tuesday is surrounded by U.S. troops at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo, the nerve center of the American operation.

Greg Gibson/Associated Press

(2) Ethnic Albanian children in the town of Urosevac in Kosovo greet President Clinton on Tuesday by waving American flags and cheering. The president recounted the leading role the United States played in the air war.

Greg Gibson/Associated Press
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 24, 1999
Words:981
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