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September 12, 1998
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 362
Crisis in Kosovo

Distracting Humanitarians

by Zoran B. Nikolic

The humanitarian crisis in Kosovo is threatening to become a humanitarian catastrophe, stated American Senator Bob Dole during his visit to Kosovo last weekend.  John Satak, Assistant to the U.S. State Secretary for Human Rights, who traveled with Dole, agreed with this assessment and used the opportunity to threaten Yugoslavia once again with NATO intervention.  What is the humanitarian situation in Kosovo?  A large number of residents, mainly Albanians, from villages which are in the battle zone, have deserted their homes — principally during the still incomplete offensive mounted by the Yugoslav Army and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MUP) of Serbia.

The assessments of the number of refugees fleeing from battlegrounds varies drastically.  The Kosovo Council for Human Rights (officially) claims that there are 417,000 refugees, while Serbian humanitarian workers in Kosovo (unofficially) assess that around 100,000 people have deserted their homes.  If the truth — as is usually the case — is somewhere in between, it is best to rely on the assessment by the UN High Commission for Refugees.  They state that there are 256,000 “refugees and displaced persons” in Kosovo.  That which threatens to transform the humanitarian drama in Kosovo into a catastrophe is not only the number of refugees itself.  Of the total number of people who left their homes, around 170,000 are still on the territory of the region.  Of that number, 120,000 have found a sanctuary among family in calmer parts of Kosovo, while around 50,000 are presently out in the open, without a roof above their heads.  They reside on sheltered ground throughout the mountains and forests of Kosovo.  The greatest number is on Milanovac Mountain, north of Orahovac; on Croljeva and Goles Mountains, which divide the Malisevo region from the Kosovo Valley; and in Drenica.  They represent the biggest problem.  Because of the rugged terrain it is difficult to supply them regularly with food and medicines.  It is difficult to even imagine how they are surviving without a roof above their heads through the downpours which have gripped the Region of Kosovo in recent days, and if the winter catches them in the mountains, they will not only be dying from the cold, but also from hunger, because humanitarian aid deliveries will become virtually impossible.  According to various western politicians and humanitarian workers, the Serbian authorities are making the resolution of this problem more difficult in two ways.  They are not permitting international humanitarians access to the affected areas, and are preventing people from coming back to their homes.

POLICE AND CONVOYS: “There is a problem in accessing areas where refugees are located,” stated Fernando Delmundo, UNHCR Spokesman for Kosovo, in conversation with VREME.  UNHCR coordinates the operations of eight of the 21 biggest international humanitarian organizations which are active in the Region.  Who, how and where prevented their teams from helping out those in need?  “Once, on August 27, the Police stopped our convoy near Slatina airport, and there were instances of detainment at checkpoints,” stated Delmundo.  The police explained that they stopped the convoy because it was in an area where battles were taking place, and allowed it to pass two days later, on August 29.  What other sort of difficulties did UNHCR encounter in accessing those in need?  “On Monday, September 7, an UCK patrol prevented our truck from delivering five tons of aid to Golubovac,” states Fernando Delmundo.  Golubovac is a place on the southern flank of Drenica where there are around 2,000 refugees, according to UNHCR assessments.  “This happened for the first time.  The truck had to head back to Pristina.”

“On August 24, police fired at a tractor from which our humanitarian aid was being delivered in Drenica, killing three of our activists,” stated Paljok Berisaj, Coordinator for the Albanian Humanitarian Society “Mother Teresa”, in conversation with VREME.  This is certainly the most serious incident connected with humanitarian aid in the entire Kosovo crisis.  Police sources in Pristina are justifying their actions with the fact that the mentioned humanitarians entered a battle zone, despite police warnings that it cannot ensure their safety.  Still, this does not explain why an official investigation was not conducted into who fired the deadly grenade and why.  Neither is Mr. Berisaj able to cite other examples of molestation of humanitarians.  On the contrary, “international humanitarian organizations have signed an agreement with the government one month ago, and now things are a lot better,” stated Berisaj.  Not only that, in cooperation with the Yugoslav Red Cross, the Government has established 11 centers for distribution of humanitarian aid.  Fernando Delmundo has confirmed that USAID, which is one of the organizations coordinated by UNHCR, will deliver 2,000 food portions daily to each of those centers.
Preventing people from coming back to their homes is a far more serious accusation.  First, Albanians and international opinion claim that people are refusing to go back to their villages because they fear renewed Serbian shelling.  Anyone who saw the villages in Kosovo which were caught in the fighting cannot gloss over this argument.  Still, there is a missing element in this.  The police claims that it never attacked a village where there were no groups of armed Albanians.  If members of UCK do not return to those villages, there wont be renewed attacks, the police states.  For days the Government has been showering the Regions of Kosovo where there are many refugees with flyers in the Albanian language in which they call on people to go back to their homes and guarantee their safety.

MISTRUST: Many Albanians in Kosovo refuse to place trust in those guarantees.  “First let the police withdraw, and then we’ll go back,” is what you will hear from the majority of refugees in Kosovo.  And the UCK — should it also withdraw?  “It’s not the same thing, my son is in it,” was the answer an elderly refugee gave to an Albanian reporter.  It is interesting that the UNHCR Spokesman, just like the majority of foreign humanitarian workers and diplomats, sees the solution in the withdrawal of the police, with out even mentioning the UCK.  Still, Mr. Delmundo is under the impression that an ever growing number of people are opting for a return to their homes.  “People figure that if they must die, it’s better that they die at home,” he states.  He cites an example from Sedlar whose residents returned from the surrounding mountains to their village when word passed among them that the their sanctuaries will be bombed.  He says that people are returning to other communities as well.  For instance, to Orahovac where a cue has already formed in front of the just opened government humanitarian distribution center.  “Life is coming back to Orahovac,” states Fernando Delmundo.

A far more serious hurdle to the return of refugees is the great number of damaged houses from artillery fire.  Policemen claim that they only fired on houses from which open fire was returned.  In some villages it will first be necessary to demolish burnt walls before anything can be constructed.  That is the situation in the village of Prilep, near Decani.  Other villages around Decani hardly look any better.  Eyewitnesses on both sides claim that such villages can be found in other parts of the Region.  The Government prepared certain quantities of construction material which is being distributed through the Direction for the Development of Kosovo and Metohija, but Albanians have still not demonstrated any willingness to make good on this free loan.  Police sources claim that some Albanians have tried this, but were prevented by their armed compatriots.  The same sources claim that the same method is used in preventing the return of those people who want to go back to their homes.

Paljok Berisaj claims that humanitarian aid is insufficient.  Fernando Delmundo claims the opposite.  “During the month of August, we supplied around 250,000 people with food, mainly through “Mother Teresa”, which is our main partner in distribution.”  But that is 80,000 more people than there are refugees in the Region, according to UNHCR figures.  “Yes, but families which took in refugees also do not have anything to eat,” states Fernando Delmundo.  “We are increasing deliveries.  In the first seven days of September we delivered monthly food supplies for 100,000 people.  These are so-called family packs containing pastas, flower, cooking oil, sugar, salt, for ten persons for one month.”

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