|A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS|
March 30, 1999
Too numerous to count, the exodus of refugees fleeing Kosovo increases by the day. Following a background report, Elizabeth Farnsworth and guests discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Balkans.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Three perspectives now on the refugee crisis in the Balkans. Ljubica Acevska is Macedonia's Ambassador to the United States. Karen Abuzayd is head of the United States Regional Office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And Bob Turner heads up the International Rescue Committee's Kosovo Operation. Bob Turner, you returned today from Kosovo and Macedonia. What can you add to the reports we've heard already in the program today about the refugee situation?
BOB TURNER: I spoke to our staff just before coming over. They had been out at the Macedonian border with Kosovo today. Not a lot of people got across today but there was apparently a three kilometer queue. The border was open but the processing of people through the border was taking a tremendous amount of time, so not a lot of people were allowed to get through. But the stories coming out of Kosovo from the urban areas from Metrovize, from Prodevo, from Pristina are very dire.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Turner, you have been watching this gather force from your position inside Kosovo for a year. Put it in context for us. What do you think -- from what you see, what is the strategy? Does Milosevic want to get rid of all the Kosovo Albanians that are in Kosovo?
BOB TURNER: It almost looks that way now. The history of the conflict has been that it has been rural up until the last week really. The bulk of the fighting, the displacement, the torching of villages was all rural. It's only since OSCE left, since the international community left last week that it has gone urban. And this now has more of a parallel to Bosnia than the conflict did before the last week.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Turner, what has happened to the Kosovar Albanians that worked with you, with your group? There have been reports that people who worked as translators, for example, or in other capacities with the international monitors have been targeted.
BOB TURNER: That's correct. We don't, unfortunately, have a lot of information on our staff. We have been trying to contact people systematically, get through by phone or through contacts try to find out how they are. Of 100 local staff, we can only count for 10 to 15. And we are obviously very concerned about the fate of the rest.
The rescue operation.
| ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Karen Abuzayd, we just
heard from Kofi Annan, the UN High Commission. It's the lead operation
of the rescue operation on this. What can you add to this picture?
KAREN ABUZAYD: Well, I can add that our really main concern is that we have been planning for about 100,000 persons to come out of Kosovo particularly into Albania and Macedonia. And now today we've revised those estimates upwards to our, I guess, worst case scenario to about 350,000. So we have a lot of work to do to meet that -- the difference between 100,000 and 350,000.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Describe that work. What are you doing?
KAREN ABUZAYD: What we are doing now is getting together the donors, getting together the agencies who are with us out there in Macedonia and Albania, trying to find out who can provide what, where are the gaps, make sure there is no duplication and just get things moving as fast as possible, because, as we've heard throughout the program, there is a terrible need for shelter; there's a big need for transport once we have the goods to move. Roads in Albania particularly are terrible. The logistics of this situation are going to be quite daunting.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, for the record, there is no sign that this is abating, that it is letting up, right?
KAREN ABUZAYD: That's what we're saying. And, as far as we can see, people are coming out in large numbers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ms. Abuzayd, do you have any information about the men and boys who, according to some reports, have been removed from the groups of refugees? They've allowed women and children to go on but that men and boys were removed. Do you have reports on where they might be?
KAREN ABUZAYD: No and that's something that worries us. We can certainly confirm that what is coming out are mostly women and children. So where are the men? What are they doing? It's a question that needs to be answered.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There have been reports, for example, of prisoners in a soccer stadium in Pristina. Do you have any information about that?
KAREN ABUZAYD: We have no information from inside. We are unable to contact our local staff, as well, inside.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the High Commission has called on the countries that we've been hearing about, Macedonia and Albania, for example, to keep the borders open. Are the borders open to refugees at this time?
KAREN ABUZAYD: I would say these countries are behaving fantastically well, amazingly well for the kinds of conditions they're in, particularly poor Albania receiving 80,000 to 100,000 people over the last several days. They've said we can accept 20,000 - we said, please accept 50,000 - now we're into 100,000 and they are still coming, so something as to be done to move them forward. As we heard, the border in Macedonia, people are moving quite slowly through it - we think it's partly because people are -- the Customs officials and so on are just getting very tired.
|The Macedonian border.|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Madam Ambassador, is that the case? What can you tell us about that border post in Macedonia where people have had to slow down?
LJUBICA ACEVSKA: Well, you know, the Republic of Macedonia from the beginning has welcomed the refugees. We are trying to be as helpful to the refugees coming into Macedonia as possible. You know, we are trying to process the documents, and we are trying to be as helpful as possible, but there are a lot of large numbers coming into the country, and that is why the process is taking a long time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There were reports, wire reports, that the National Security Council of Macedonia said that the country could take only 20,000 and no more. Is that the case?
LJUBICA ACEVSKA: Well, you know, for 20,000 we can provide, even though that is difficult, we can still provide for them comfortably, but we have already surpassed the 20,000. You know, last Thursday, our foreign minister sent letters to his colleagues asking for assistance, and thus far, you know, unfortunately, we have not received much assistance to help us with the refugees. We have state we cannot - we don't have the capacity and we are asking for as much help as possible. And as Ms. Abuzayd said, you know, we are doing everything that we can. We will continue to do everything that we can, but it is very important for the international community to be forthcoming immediately with help to provide the people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So Madam Ambassador, there could come a point where you have to close the borders -- you just can't take anybody else?
LJUBICA ACEVSKA: No, I don't think we will ever close the borders because again from the humanitarian aspects, we'll try to help the people. But, you know, it is becoming a great burden, and it is -- it is very hard. But we will never close the borders. We'll try to be as helpful as possible. And again we are reiterating our call for help from the international community.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Bob Turner, you have been in Macedonia. You've seen how the refugees are being taken care of. What are you seeing?
BOB TURNER: To date, I think the refugees have been treated very well in Macedonia. The system that is being utilized is a host family system. Refugees come across, they are registered with the police as humanitarian assistance cases. They receive assistance primarily through the Macedonian Red Cross with assistance from the Federation of Red Cross and then they are placed with a family. And to date, I think they've been treated very well. The issue obviously is how many refugees can Macedonia take.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Karen Abuzayd, what about Albania? This is one of the poorest countries in Europe. What is happening to the refugees who go there? Where are they staying?
KAREN ABUZAYD: Well, believe it or not, many of them are also being hosted by Albanian families. As I say, the people are going up with their cars, trucks, their buses, their tractors and taking people back to their homes. We - we're estimating that the people have come in, about half of them have been moved onwards, mainly by local Albanians and by the Ministry of Defense in Albania. What the government and people of Albania have done is quite a phenomenon, I would say.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about Montenegro, what is happening there?
KAREN ABUZAYD: There, we are just getting our people back in today, so, I don't have the latest information. Our people had been taken out of there as with all our international staff from the former Republic of Yugoslavia -- Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. So what we understand though from Montenegro is that the people are very looked after by the Montenegrin government although it's straining their capacity, too but they've always behaved very well with the refugees; they've always been very cooperative with our agency up until this time, even before this particular crisis.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob Turner, explain the effect of having tens of thousands of Kosovar refugees in Montenegro, which, after all, is part of the Yugoslav Republic with Serbia.
BOB TURNER: It's hard to scale how much impact it's going to have politically on Montenegro. Obviously the situation there is politically somewhat precarious made more so by the air strikes which, I think, are somewhat hard for a pro-western anti-Milosevic government to explain to the people. But I think for the most part, the Montenegrin government has acted well towards the refugees. There was some movement earlier late last year that people were encouraged to carry on from Montenegro to Albania. But it's really hard to gauge. As I say, Montenegro's political situation is difficult, to say the least.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because its president has been President Milosevic's key opponent?
BOB TURNER: Correct. But it's also part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It has the Yugoslav army have bases there, have air defense systems there. So, obviously it's a difficult position for them to be in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ambassador Acevska, are you worried that Macedonia could be attacked because of the refugees coming in, attacked by Serbian troops, Serbian forces, and also because of the NATO troops that are now headquartered in Macedonia?
|NATO guarantees .|
ACEVSKA: Well, you know, we have asked for guarantees from NATO and also
from the United States so that in case anything does happen in Macedonia,
that NATO will protect us. We have received the assurances from Mr. Solana
and also from the United States. We have received assurances for the territorial
integrity of the Republic of Macedonia.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So this is a real concern?
LJUBICA ACEVSKA: It is a concern to us, certainly. I mean we do live in that neighborhood. We will continue to be in that neighborhood. That's why we have also stated that our territory should not be used for attacks against Yugoslavia. And we have always called for a peaceful solution and political agreement to this crisis.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Madam Ambassador, what other consequences could flow from the presence of so many refugees in Macedonia?
LJUBICA ACEVSKA: Well, you know, in the Republic of Macedonia, we have always had very good interethnic relations. The Albanians have always been part of the government -- members in parliament. But one of the consequences could be that, you know, Macedonia is again relatively a poor country, so economically there might be some resentment why a focus is paid to the refugees and not to the Macedonians. And a lot of the Albanians are taking in the refugees but this could also be a burden to the families, you know, if all of a sudden it is an increase in numbers. So the economic consequences -- and also economically Macedonia is suffering because we are losing the trade, which we had with Yugoslavia. We are losing the transit through Yugoslavia. Already we have calculated we have incurred costs of over $200 million because of the crisis which is going on over there. So it is of great cost to Macedonia.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ms. Abuzayd, if there are more and more refugees and they can't be absorbed by Montenegro, by Albania and Macedonia, where do they go? What do you do then?
KAREN ABUZAYD: Well, this becomes a big problem and the High Commissioner, as well as the Secretary-General, as you heard, have asked that other countries besides the neighboring countries keep their borders open; treat these people like refugees if they come or if he have to do something like we did during the Bosnian war, grant some kind of temporary protection to them. I mean, if we get 250,000 more refugees, we know there is no place for them, not enough place for them in the neighboring countries. They are going to have to move further on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Ms. Abuzayd, the history in Bosnia has not been great with returning refugees, right? Many of the people who left have not been able to go back. What about here?
KAREN ABUZAYD: That's extremely worrying for us. We are still dealing with the consequences of the Bosnian war in terms of minority returns, that is hundreds of thousands of persons still outside the country are not back in their home villages. And so what does it mean for this same group? Probably much the same because they want to go home. They would rather go home to their places rather than move on further. But it would depend how soon that prospect looks like it might come about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob Turner, do you have anything to add to the question of going home?
BOB TURNER: Well, I think there is a difference from Bosnia. One enormous caveat - that being that there will be an agreement -- that there will be a NATO ground force to implement to make sure peace is held. The Albanian community has a tremendously strong tie to the land to their homes. And I think that they will go home as quickly as they came out, given the opportunity. We've seen that over and over again throughout the conflict. A village is shelled. The people are forced to flee. They go to the next closest place they feel safe. But at the first opportunity, when they feel confident that it's secure, they return to their homes. I think they'll do the same.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all three very much for being with us.