Please Don't Forget Us

Please Don't Forget Us

6/6/1999 - The New York Times


Everywhere in the camps were thousands of children with unanswerable questions.

We couldn't close our eyes. The television footage and news accounts horrified us and challenged us to act.

The reports of Kosovar Albanians sent fleeing from their ancestral homes, some packed into railway cars, or murdered and buried in pits they were forced to dig themselves, evoked agonizing and hauntingly familiar images. Who would not be deeply moved by the pictures of bewildered children on the road to exile or the elderly, too feeble to walk, being pushed in wheelbarrows by younger family members?

We knew we could not turn away from the moral obligation to act against the evil that made ethnic Albanians victims of Serb aggression. We set up a special relief fund. The outpouring of support has been extraordinary.

We also wanted to bear witness. An American Jewish Committee delegation has just returned from Macedonia where we visited four refugee camps, bringing donated medicines, children's clothes and toys.

Our memories are indelible. Images of crowded camps, divided families, and refugees with only the clothes on their backs and the shock of dislocation etched on their faces will long haunt us. And everywhere in the camps there were the thousands of children with unanswerable questions about missing relatives, lost homes, and, ultimately, human nature itself. But even in those camps, there were inspiring stirrings of hope. The refugees weren't succumbing to despair. Hope was their lifeboat, and they weren't about to abandon it.

We witnessed an impressive international humanitarian response. Lifesaving relief operations launched by NATO, the United Nations, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Catholic Relief Services, the Israel Defense Forces, and others have meant food, shelter, potable water, waste disposal, and health care.

We'll never forget the staff of the Israeli field hospital who, among other services, delivered 12 babies. In gratitude, some of the babies all born to Muslim families now carry the Hebrew names of those working in the mobile labor room, like Israel, Ofra, and Tikva. Or miracle workers like the IRC's Bob Turner, Kate Bruck, and Rick Brennan, who have devoted their lives to emergency relief.

At the end of this bloodstained century, many ask: Have we human beings learned anything at all from the past, or are we forever destined to witness new manifestations of cruelty in the name of nationalism, religion, ethnicity, or political ideology?

Though the human capacity for evil persists, surely the human capacity to respond has grown stronger and that offers more than a glimmer of hope.

The Holocaust, for example, too often did not even merit headline attention in the media, much less adequate safe havens to fleeing Jews or Allied bombing of the rail lines to Auschwitz. Today, however, we can point to a very different and far more encouraging response by governments, charitable agencies, and the media. That is indeed measurable, if still insufficient, progress.

The Kosovar refugees implored us to convey three basic messages:

Accept our heartfelt gratitude for all that has been done for us. We couldn't have survived without refuge in neighboring countries and the outpouring of support from relief agencies and their donors.

Help us return to Kosovo and ensure our safety, so that we can get on with our lives. Political solutions may be complicated but the starting point cannot be a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Please don't forget us. We need your continued assistance, as we don't know how long our plight will last. Don't yield to compassion fatigue.

Please take their messages to heart. We do.encouraging response.

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