Refugee chief in Bosnia fears conflicts elsewhere


*TC BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The departing chief of the United Nations refugee program in the former Yugoslavia has warned that ethnic conflicts like those in the Balkans could erupt in other parts of Europe.

Interviewed last week as he prepared to take up a new post in Brussels, Belgium, Jose-Maria Mendiluce said his 19 months here had taught him that "people can be transformed into hating and killing machines without too much difficulty."

"There is an attitude in the West that war is raging three hours from Venice only because Balkan people are fundamentally different from other Europeans," he said. "That is a very dangerous mistake, because it is leading Europeans to become immobilized and to think only about their new cars and their beach holidays.

"When I look at far-right groups emerging in various European countries, including some that have enjoyed electoral successes, I realize that Yugoslavia-type conflicts could easily break out there. All it takes is an economic crisis and a few cynical politicians who blame it on immigrants or poor people or people who are somehow different."

"Here you see how easy it is for cynical leaders to stir up hatred by spreading lies in the media and fomenting provocations on the ground," he said. "The rest of Europe is not immune to this kind of manipulation. It could happen in Britain or France or Germany or Spain."

As an envoy of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the 42-year-old Spaniard has supervised the spending of about $1 billion in aid since the Bosnian war began 13 months ago, feeding, clothing, sheltering and providing medical care for more than 3 million refugees and displaced people.

His replacement will be Nicholas Morris, who has been overseeing efforts to resettle Afghan refugees.

Because he insisted on personally witnessing the carnage in Bosnia, Mr. Mendiluce, who formerly directed refugee operations in Angola and Central America, has become something of a casualty himself. A robust figure, he suffered a cardiac collapse in February and was placed under intensive care.

"I will never be the same person after this war, that is for sure," Mr. Mendiluce said. "You have to digest blood and atrocities. It has been very, very difficult. I am very close to having that traumatic stress syndrome that veterans of Vietnam and other wars suffer from."

"Of everything I saw, maybe the expressions in the eyes of old people who have lost everything affected me most," he said. "There is a lot of talk about how children suffer in war, and all of that is quite true, but children have futures. We take them out of some horrible place, and then a couple of days later they are laughing and playing on the street.

"But old people know they will never have time to rebuild their lives. The experience of holding these people in my arms and understanding their hopelessness is really terrible."

Mr. Mendiluce believes the war in Bosnia is unlikely to end soon.

"Even those who have signed peace agreements don't change their behavior," he said. "I don't expect them to become prophets of peace and love, but at least to stop hating and killing. This has not happened."

Mr. Mendiluce considers the relief effort here to have been largely successful. But he added:

"Maybe our greatest success here has been that for the first time we have established the principle that the world community has the right to humanitarian intervention in a country during wartime."

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