Ethnic Albanians face perilous landscape

Land mines, devastation slow return to Kosovo

June 13, 1999|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Thousands of land mines threaten to delay the refugees' return to Kosovo or, in some cases, injure or maim civilians. And NATO peacekeepers are unlikely to be able to prevent violence as Albanians retaliate for treatment by Serbs.

Warning of a devastated and dangerous landscape after fierce fighting and 11 weeks of airstrikes, officials are telling refugees not to plan to return for at least two weeks after Serbian forces withdraw and an international security force has entered the province.

"It's important that refugees not rush home until their safety and sustenance is assured," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said Friday in Macedonia.

In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expects only about half of the nearly 800,000 refugees in Macedonia and Albania to return to Kosovo by the start of winter.

Though about 60 of them reportedly entered Kosovo on Friday, many refugees are skeptical about security -- and uncertain whether their homes in Kosovo are still standing -- and are in no rush to return, officials of refugee agencies say.

"The task of restoring Kosovo to a semblance of normal life is immense," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday. "In planning terms, winter is fast approaching, and we are in a race against time."

Mark Bartolini, a Washington representative of the International Rescue Committee, says the first priority should be to help the roughly 500,000 ethnic Albanians who have been displaced within Kosovo and have been trying to survive out of sight of Serbian soldiers.

The rescue committee has been conducting limited airdrops of food, he said, but he suspects that some refugees may be starving. Now that the threat of hostile Serbian anti-aircraft fire is removed, "we hope NATO will do massive airdrops" or food convoys, Bartolini said.

For ethnic Albanian refugees outside Kosovo, the first challenge will be trying to get in. Serbian soldiers stripped many deportees and refugees of their personal documentation as they left, apparently intending to make it impossible for the refugees to return.

With technical and financial aid from Microsoft Corp., staffers of the U.N. refugee commission are interviewing refugees in Albania and Macedonia and filling out fact sheets, with the aim of issuing each one an identity card. The information will be computerized to help reunite families.

Where documentation is lacking, agency officials hope that NATO or U.N. personnel at the border will allow refugees back in on good faith. It is unlikely, the officials say, that refugees would want to enter Kosovo if they had not lived there.

"It's not like they're going to go to Hawaii," said Andres Ramirez, a senior liaison officer for the refugee commission in New York.

Serbs are being granted a small, symbolic presence at border stations but will not be allowed to bar refugees from returning, according to Albright.

The refugee commission plans to send in a 300-person convoy to survey the province soon after NATO peacekeepers enter. Two immediate priorities will be to ensure a supply of clean water and set up health facilities. During the Bosnian war, wells were contaminated by dead animals and poisons.

But the biggest threat is land mines.

Tens of thousands of the Russian-style anti-personnel mines litter the province, officials estimate. The brown or green plastic mines, about the circumference of a coffee cup, can be buried or scattered. They are designed to maim, because an injured soldier is more of a burden to troops than a dead one.

NATO will send in specially trained troops to demine the roads and the areas that are needed for their operations, but they will not demine the entire province, officials said.

"Ordinarily, humanitarian demining is not a military activity," said Army Lt. Col. Bill Darley, a Pentagon spokesman. It is against the law for U.S. forces to be involved in such civilian efforts.

The refugee commission is trying to get NATO troops to aid in the demining effort but has not succeeded, said Panos Moumtzis, a spokesman for the U.N. agency.

"There are discussions we're having with NATO, but they're refusing to do the demining," he said. "If anything else, at least they can do mine demarcation."

The role of humanitarian demining will fall to private contractors, hundreds of whom are being hired by NATO countries and are expected to arrive in Kosovo by the end of next month, said Donald Patierno, director of the State Department's Office of Humanitarian Demining.

Patierno said the demining teams will be working until mid-October, when they will break for the winter. Until they arrive in the province and determine the extent of the problem, he said, it will be difficult to determine how many refugees will be able to return before the first snows.

Demining could be hastened by the Serbs, who are required under the peace plan to offer details about where mines have been laid.

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