Plagued by Heat, Crime and Snafus, the Fort Chaffee Refugee Camp Becomes An American Nightmare

updated 07/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/07/1980 01:00AM

At Fort Chaffee, Ark., the air is filled with dust and flies and thickened by the acrid smell of asphalt melting under a relentless sun. Packs of lean, bare-chested young men cluster among shabby wooden barracks, bartering cigarettes for homemade knives and raisin whiskey. At the compound perimeter, sweating, unhappy U.S. troops keep watch against a recurrence of the rioting that erupted among the 19,000 Cubans last month. "I got more sleep in 'Nam, and they were shooting us over there," grouses Staff Sgt. Michael Lucerno, who has spent a third of his 33 years in the Army. "This is the worst duty I ever had."

Fort Chaffee is a lock in the flow of Cuban refugees—a steamy limbo between escape and destination—and to the Americans in charge of the camp the job has been a nightmare. An estimated one-fourth of the Cubans arrived there sick—their ailments ranging from asthma to cerebral palsy to insanity—and a great many others are considered problems, some violent and dangerous. Since the June 1 riot Ku Klux Klansmen have been congregating near Fort Chaffee to rant about white power, and some residents of bordering towns have armed themselves against another outbreak. In the brutal heat, tempers of the GI guards hover near the boiling point as well. "We don't need guns," growls one soldier who was stationed at Chaffee after the riot. "If any of the Cubans tried to break out again we'd beat them to death with our clubs."

In contrast to the Vietnamese refugees, who came to this country with their leaders and with many families intact, the Cubans have no hierarchy in place, and maintaining discipline has been difficult. The marijuana some of the refugees brought with them from Cuba seems to have run out, but distilleries crop up around the compound as fast as they are shut down. The raisins and sugar needed to make the liquor are stolen from the camp kitchens. Three-quarters of the camp population are classified as "unaccompanied males." Many of them are gay (homosexuality is a crime in Cuba), and guards continually face the problem of clearing unoccupied barracks of gay love nests. A heterosexual black market is also thriving. "There's three whorehouses working inside the compound," one soldier claims. "The going price is a pack of cigarettes."

The task of feeding, clothing and processing these thousands of non-English-speaking people would be awesome enough without such problems. Since most of the refugees arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the Red Cross outfits them (at a cost of $34 a person). Every day the mess hall serves 9,000 dozen eggs, 7,500 pounds of bread and 3,500 gallons of milk on a daily budget of $2.35 per person. To be discharged from the camp, a Cuban must be screened, which involves medical exams and interviews to weed out the "insane and dangerous," and a sponsor must be found who will guarantee a place to live, a job and education for any children.

Even to the best-intentioned social workers, the challenge sometimes is too much. They complain that help from Washington is often halfhearted. "I'm not a bleeding-heart liberal who wants to pick up all the pieces," says David Lewis, 38, a former Marine captain who is now director of migration and refugee services for the U.S. Catholic Conference. "But it's not fair for President Carter to bring them in and then say, 'Okay, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists—you take care of them.' If their honeymoon with relatives and sponsors ends in two weeks, where do they go? How about language and job training? How do we keep them from being a drain on the system?"

The more immediate problem for Fort Chaffee authorities is not so much official neglect as bureaucratic bumbling. In one case, the release of a Cuban physician—a man whose life had been threatened for reporting illegal activities to the authorities—was held up for several days awaiting security clearance for his 11-year-old daughter. Another snafu involved the need for a low-power FM station to call the refugees to their screening interviews. Washington said that FCC approval was required and would take several weeks. The military intervened and had a station set up in three hours. Then the General Services Administration announced it wanted several weeks to take bids on cheap radio receivers for the barracks. Again the military found a shortcut, but on opening the boxes of radios they found they had been sent AM models only. Says one of the compound's ranking officers: "This thing is enough to drive anyone absolutely crazy."

The man who probably should be most unraveled by it all is Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Jim Smith, 44, a Spanish-speaking native Texan and the top law-enforcement officer at Fort Chaffee. Smith is strangely serene. A soft-spoken, no-nonsense cop, he is respected as fair by even the toughest Cubans, who remember how he and his men held their fire during the riots—unlike some members of the state and local police—and instead directed the marshals to wrestle the Cubans back into the compound. Smith says his calm has an unusual source—8-year-old Jidenia Migares Jimenes. Smith says he put her father in the camp stockade not long ago to cool off after a fight with her mother, and now he tries to visit the little girl at the end of every day. She watches for his gray Lincoln, leaps into his lap, kisses his deep-lined face and runs to the trunk of his car. Pushing aside the confiscated clubs and knives, she looks for the candy or toy that he always brings. Then comes the special treat—a ride in the big car. "She's my doll," Smith, the father of three boys, says softly. "If I didn't have her to come see once in a while, I'd go sour. She helps remind me that even though this camp has got some tough ones, they're a minority. There are some good people too."

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