Return and relief are a huge logistical challenge

Albanian Kosovars, NATO, aid agencies must use same road

June 09, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Peace looked so imminent on Friday that the Catholic Relief Services office here loaded a dozen 20-ton trucks with food aid to be distributed in Kosovo. The peace accord took a detour and the trucks stayed in the warehouse.

But sooner or later the day will come when they join what may be one of the great traffic jams of history, as NATO troops, international relief agencies and hundreds of thousands of refugees take to the single road north of here that leads to Kosovo.

"The congestion is going to be an absolute nightmare, probably for six weeks," David Holdridge, regional director for the Baltimore-based CRS, said yesterday. "It's going to be awful."

Skeptics have questioned whether the refugees, despite what they say, will really be so keen to leave the camps here and return to their devastated homes, where there will be no water or food but plenty of land mines and booby traps.

No two ways about it, said Holdridge -- they'll be scrambling to get back, to claim what's left of their homes before someone else does and to start rebuilding.

Relief agencies will just have to deal with that and, of course, with the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who are still in Kosovo and almost surely in desperate need of assistance.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has come up with an overall plan for supplying Kosovo, with specific roles for the array of nongovernmental organizations working under its wing. CRS, for instance, will be responsible for distributing food in the western regions of Prizren and Djakovica.

In the first 10 days, Holdridge said, food worth $2.5 million is to be distributed. Over two years the humanitarian assistance to be provided by CRS will grow to $26.5 million, and $63.5 million will be spent on long-term community reconstruction programs, the largest part of that going to schools.

But in the beginning, as relief agencies come in right on the heels of NATO troops, there will be little but chaos. UNHCR will try to organize convoys but, Holdridge pointed out, relief agencies are "notoriously independent types of organizations," and soon trucks will be dashing off everywhere.

"It'll be a circus," he said.

"We're looking at huge logistical difficulties," Paula Ghedini, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, said yesterday. The biggest problems will be congestion and the lack of food and drinkable water, she said.

The U.N. agency was severely criticized when the refugees flooded into Macedonia and Albania for its inability to coordinate among all the other organizations, and the return of the refugees is sure to put it to a severe test once more.

One potential problem is that it must wait for clearance from headquarters in New York before moving into Kosovo, and another is that some agencies have chosen to work outside the UNHCR umbrella.

CRS knows where it is going to work, what it's going to do, and how. "What's a mystery," said Holdridge, "is who else is going to be trying to do it, and when."

Ghedini said her agency has been trying to persuade refugees to wait before going back in, until Kosovo is secure and reliable sources of food and water have been established. But she acknowledged that it might be futile.

"We're worried they'll be too eager to go too quickly, before the mines are cleared," she said. "And their condition there will be infinitely worse than I believe they think it will be."

But as the Serbs leave each village behind, Holdridge said, word of this will spread "like wildfire" among the refugees here and the rush will be on.

After the first few months go by, CRS will turn more of its attention to a community development program, picking up where it left off before its offices in Kosovo were shut down in March.

The emphasis will be on building schools and developing new curricula and programs for parents. The agency hopes to use this effort to help lead Kosovar Albanian children away from ideas of revenge and vendetta and toward a more tolerant society.

If CRS needed encouragement in that, it came last week when refugees in a CRS-run camp runs severely beat a family of Roma, or Gypsies, who also were refugees but were accused of having collaborated with Serbs in Kosovo in the killing of Albanians.

Hundreds of Macedonian policemen had to be called out after four hours in which CRS workers attempted to keep the victims safe from the furious crowd. The Roma survived, but the incident suggested that violence in the Balkans might live on long after peace has been declared.

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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