Relief efforts near starvation in the Balkans

June 18, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The international effort to feed the victims of the former Yugoslavia's civil war is in grave trouble. Many Western nations have sharply reduced their contributions. The European Community, one of the major donors, has so far made no contribution for the period running from April to December this year.

"We don't have enough food to distribute," said Judith Kumin, the outgoing representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "You can have tennis courts in our warehouses. We have less than 600 tons there, while we should be distributing 400 tons per day. I'm extremely worried about the U.N. protected zones, such as Zepa, Srebrenica, and Gorazde. They are totally dependent on us, but our warehouses are empty."

Even the U.N. bureaucracy is a problem. "It took exactly four weeks for us to get clearance from the U.N. Sanctions Committee to bring in baby food," Ms. Kumin said. "Can you imagine!"

In eastern Bosnia, said Charles Vincent of the World Food Program, "We have four days' supplies of flour, three days' of vegetable oil, seven days' of beans and three days' of sugar."

The international community has done the least to provide food for the most vulnerable, Mr. Vincent said.

"We are most short of food for children, pregnant women and young mothers," he said. "We need milk powder and high-protein biscuits. This is the best food for the most vulnerable groups, especially in situations such as when you have large movements of refugees like the one in Tuzla recently. But we simply don't have it."

It takes roughly three months from the moment a donor pledges food for it to arrive to its destination, Mr. Vincent said. "Some things are in the pipeline, but if there is no change in attitude, then from October on there just won't be any food," he said. "It's as simple as that."

Another official predicted a grave crisis by August. "We are 40 percent covered for June and July, but then it will be a disaster," he said.

The Belgrade offices of international relief organizations handle 1.2 million refugees in eastern and central Bosnia, as well as in Serbia and Montenegro. Refugees in western Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia are handled by offices in Zagreb and Split in Croatia.

Nearly 3.8 million people in the former Yugoslavia are being supported by the agencies, according to official figures -- 2.2 million in Bosnia, 800,000 in Croatia, 640,000 in Serbia-Montenegro, 70,000 in Slovenia and 30,000 in Macedonia.

A meeting of UNHCR workers is to be held in Zagreb this week to plan a retrenchment strategy.

Almost all Western nations responded strongly last year when a major United Nations-led effort was mounted to help refugees from the former Yugoslavia's civil war. The international community "had a sense of guilt about what they were not doing in Bosnia, and money and food was donated," one U.N. official said. "We were an alibi for inaction."

But that sense of guilt has been replaced by "donor fatigue."

There is a political problem, too. Some governments are unwilling to provide any humanitarian assistance to Serbian refugees. The United States, for example, has earmarked its donations for Muslims only. There are about 500,000 Serbian refugees in Serbia and Bosnia.

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