Last December, two cargo transports of the Royal Saudi Air Force touched down in Tirana, the capital of Albania, carrying 45 tons of blankets, clothes, food and medical supplies. It was the first shipment of relief aid from any country to refugees fleeing the Yugoslav province of Kosovo.
Over the next six months, as their numbers swelled to nearly a million people and created Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II, half of the new refugees followed a similar westward path toward asylum in Albania, where the refugees had ethnic ties. There, an estimated 134,000—more than a quarter of the total—found shelter, food, clothing, medical care and, by late June, repatriation assistance from aid agencies based in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and five other Arab countries, which together mounted the war's most successful relief operations.
"We were proud to be the first country to send aid," said Saleh Abdul Latif Sijantan, chargé d'affaires at the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Tirana. Like many aid workers, from diplomats to doctors and truck drivers, Sijantan put in 16-hour days—sometimes more—through the peak of the crisis in April, May and June of this year.
There had been some preparation: In May 1998, fighting between Kosovo Liberation Army forces and Serb paramilitary groups began to force the first significant numbers of refugees into Albania, and that month the United Nations assigned the care of 1500 of them to the Islamic Coordination Council (ICC), which oversaw the work of the 20 Islamic relief groups operating in the country. According to ICC director Muhammad al-Wael, that early experience benefited all the organizations later on. "It wasn't an easy task," he says. Despite the anarchic situation in the region, he assesses the overall coordination effort to date as "90 percent successful."
Yet it was after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia began on March 24 of this year that chaotic waves of Kosovars flooded across the Albanian and Macedonian borders during several traumatic weeks. Though officials and citizens of those host countries proved generous, they could care for only a fraction of the refugees. The 19 NATO-member countries, the humanitarian agencies of the United Nations and some 150 non-governmental organizations (NGO's) from around the world scrambled to bring them some relief.
In Riyadh on April 14, a royal order established the Saudi Joint Committee for the Relief of Kosovars (SJC), composed of five organizations with preexisting offices in Tirana. The SJC was charged with coordinating the aid-gathering and aid-distribution efforts of each organization and the rest of the country. The response "reached record figures" and "by the grace of God, was beyond our wildest dreams," says Abdul Rahman al-Suwailem, chairman of the SJC and director of the Saudi Red Crescent Society (SRCS). Over three months, government and private sources donated more than $45.5 million in cash, services and supplies, and an appeal for several dozen medical volunteers yielded more than 130 applications.
This was an overwhelmingly "emotional response," al-Suwailem explains, to the sight of "our Muslim brothers who were being forced out of their country and their homes." Even before the SJC was established, however, in the first week of April, the SRCS filled the first of what became daily C-130 Hercules relief flights to Tirana. Operated by the Royal Saudi Air Force and funded by the SRCS, the 46-day-long "air relief bridge" ferried 1944 tons of relief from Jiddah and Riyadh to Tirana. (As this article went to press, flights continued several times a week, mostly to Priština, the capital of Kosovo.)
By mid-May, this aid had blossomed into 24 Saudi-supported refugee camps housing 19,350 refugees. Another 35,200 refugees were supported in Albanian host homes with UN-standard, 20-kilogram (44-lb) family food baskets of rice, beans, macaroni, milk, cooking oil and canned vegetables. Eleven Saudi-sponsored health centers and 35 smaller clinics were open throughout the country and, in Tirana, a 50-bed field hospital treated nearly 4000 patients over six weeks. Now, the refugees have largely returned to Kosovo, and the SJC plans to make that hospital a permanent donation to Albania.
At its peak in May, the Saudi relief operation employed 385 people, mostly Kosovo refugees and Albanians, as translators, typists, cooks, cleaners, drivers, porters, mechanics, welders, carpenters and even doctors and nurses. "Hiring them to work was one way we helped them to regain their lost dignity," said Wael al-Dijani, director of the SJC in Tirana. In addition, some 260 tons of supplies were purchased locally, saving on transport costs and boosting the local economy. (In contrast, all NATO-sponsored relief was imported.)
According to the Albanian government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the SJC was "the largest NGO in Albania," says al-Dijani.
The efforts of others from the Arab world were similarly generous and energetic. One of the most visible relief efforts was that of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the first days of April, private fundraising efforts there took pnly a week to fill a 38-ton, Russian-built Ilyushin cargo aircraft and get it to Tirana. Led by the UAE Red Crescent Society, the nation channeled its relief mostly to the remote, isolated northern region near the city of Kukës, which saw 100,000 refugees arrive in the two weeks following the beginning of the NATO air assaults. Working around the clock, relief workers and refugees built a tent camp that within 10 days accommodated 10,000 people. In the weeks that followed, that camp's responsiveness to refugee needs earned it a sterling reputation among Kosovars and aid workers alike.
To get aid up to Kukës, the uae also lengthened and modernized—in a matter of days—a World War II-era airstrip. It was quickly put to use by arriving relief flights from many nations, and from it the uae went on to operate a continuous helicopter airshuttle service that linked Kukës to Tirana, saving countless aid workers, and journalists, a grueling 18-hour round trip by road.
Aid flowed from Kuwait, too, where 10 organizations united in the Kuwaiti Joint Relief Committee (KJRC) and distributed some $15 million worth of relief supplies, the results of a nationwide donation drive. The KJRC took responsibility for the welfare of some 7000 refugees in eight camps, and put together 120,000 UN-standard food baskets that were delivered to 40,000 refugees who were living in the homes of Albanian host families. Like the SJC camps, KJRC camps offered three meals a day and medical care, and the camp staff was hired from among the refugee population.
Other Arab contributions came from Palestinians, who assembled a 12-member Palestine Red Crescent medical team whose members spoke a total of six languages. They arrived from Gaza and Cairo on April 27 aboard Palestinian Airlines' first-ever flight to land on European soil. Qatar, one of the least populous Arab countries, had donated 137 tons of aid, sent in a medical team, taken responsibility for 1500 refugees and prepared 10,000 food baskets—all by early May. In the Mullet refugee camp on the outskirts of Tirana, Tunisia donated a field hospital which treated nearly 2500 people, and kept it supplied. Egypt sent 15 planeloads of supplies that were distributed by the International Committee of the Red Cross. A nationwide donation campaign was also held in Sudan, which chartered an aircraft to fly its donations to Tirana, where the Khartoum-based Munadhamat al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah set up two refugee camps that housed 700 refugees.
As impressive as these numbers are, actually getting the refugees to shelter, providing them with clean water and sanitary facilities, and putting food, blankets, diapers and clothing into their hands was frustrating, grueling and occasionally dangerous for all the donors.
Bureaucracy posed one obstacle. An SJC order of Jeeps was delayed at the Turkish border for three weeks. The first Royal Saudi Air Force relief flights had difficulty obtaining rights to enter Tirana's NATO-controlled airspace. In setting up the field hospital, says Sijantan, "I had to run around the country for a whole 10 days just to find a suitable place." Then, he explains, the Albanian government stipulated that the hospital had to be made operational within 12 days of its arrival in the form of four custom-outfitted air-cargo containers, despite hard rains that made welding difficult.
But throughout Albania, Europe's poorest country, the greatest problems were infrastructure problems: Roads, electricity, water lines, sewers and telephone services barely met local needs, and the refugees had bloated the country's population by 15 percent virtually overnight. A camp at Tirana administered by Al-Waqf Al-Islami, a member of the SJC, required 17 kilometers (10½ mi) of hastily laid pipe to connect to the nearest water main. Two other camps required drilling seven water wells. Using the narrow and often unpaved roads, even camps relatively near Tirana could take up to four hours to reach, and those in the north required nine.
Procuring the local building materials needed to set up some of the camps was a great effort, too, as aid donors and Albanian businessmen and contractors all struggled to find lumber, roofing sheets, pipe, doors, concrete block, cement, earth-moving equipment and other supplies. Demand for trucks to ferry building and relief material to the refugee sites drove the price for transport of a 10-ton shipment from Tirana as high as $800 for a 160-kilometer (100-mi) journey. In response to shortages and uneven flows of vital materials, coordination among the Saudi, other Arab and international organizations made it commonplace for one group or camp to borrow supplies, vehicles, fuel and even large sums of cash from one another to ward off the direst needs.
Not all "refugee camps" were tent camps. In many cases, quick conversion of existing large buildings was more practical, though hardly easy. Simply identifying and gaining permission to use certain buildings—mostly long-abandoned Communist-era apartments or commercial or industrial structures—was only the first step in a process of near-total renovation and adaptation. In this effort, the SJC and other Arab donors made it a point to provide each family the dignity of partitioned quarters. "This took up at least half the cost," says Saleh al-Zibany, director of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO).
The Saudi Joint Committee's al-Dijani credits the major international agencies, especially UNHCR, the United Nations Children's Fund, the International Red Cross and the World Food Program, with "complete coordination" that allowed all donors "not only to ascertain the refugees' whereabouts, but also to get rations and relief where it was meant to be going. Meetings were held with them on a daily basis." Like the other groups, the SJC deployed "scouts" to find the numbers and locations of arriving refugee groups, and together the organizations would set about working with Albanian authorities to bring them together.
The Arab-world relief efforts also bore fruit in an unexpected way, as the Saudi, UAE, Kuwaiti and other Arab donors' reputation for generosity and even-handedness spread. Ibrahim Abdul Hameed, director of Al-Waqf Al-Islami, learned to make sure that, whenever supplies were distributed, the Saudis on the team wore their national dress, the thawb (robe) and ghutra (head scarf). This paid off, for al-Dajani notes that "whenever a Saudi entered a camp wearing his Arab dress, groups of children would start screaming 'al-salamu 'alaykum!' ["peace be upon you," the common Muslim greeting in Arabic] and follow him around as if he were handing out candy."
Following the June 9 peace agreement and the Serb withdrawal from Kosovo, the relief operation began to transform itself into one of repatriation and reconstruction. While hundreds of thousands of refugees returned within days on their own—some camps were ghost towns even before July 1, which the UN had designated the first "safe return" day—the SJC helped hundreds of others by hiring 30 buses to ferry people back to their towns and villages in Kosovo, many of which were seriously damaged. The SJC quickly reorganized its workers to begin passing out food parcels at key border points, and a medical team began taking over the resupply, refurbishing and initial administration of the main hospital in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren. Within the first week of July, SJC food aid in the area around that city had reached 1500 people and tents had been distributed to many who had found their houses uninhabitable. A Saudi-sponsored fund of more than $22.5 million was tapped to help rebuild mosques and schools and provide care for orphans throughout Kosovo. The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), an SJC member, organized a program by which individual sponsors can support a Kosovar child by a contribution of $80 per month.
Kuwait's KJRC also quickly followed the NATO forces that swept north to verify the Serb withdrawal. "We were the first Muslim organization to enter Kosovo and set up an office in Priština," says Ibrahim Makky, who directed KJRC operations in Tirana. "We are planning to give each Kosovo farmer his choice of one cow or three goats. Later, he'll give us the first calf or kid, which we'll donate to another family." The agency has also offered to replace medical equipment in Priština's main hospital.
"Our fundamental mission will involve resettlement and rebuilding," says SJC chairman Abdul Rahman al-Suwailem.
Nato has estimated that if there is no further destruction, reconstruction in Kosovo will take several years and will cost more than $31 billion. To do their part, the Arab-world NGOs, staff and volunteers are still there, working effectively and with little publicity, staying on for the same simple reason they came: The Kosovars, says al-Zibany of the IIRO, "are Muslims, and we must help them out."
Hussein Saud Qusti, MD, is a family-practice physician and an editor at the Saudi Gazette in Jiddah. This was his second reporting tour to Albania.
Thorne Anderson teaches photojournalism at the American University in Bulgaria.
Delinda C. Hanley is news editor at The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Arthur Clark is a staff writer for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran.