June 7, 1999
As peace talks between NATO and Yugoslavia stall, nearly a million Kosovar refugees wait for the chance to return home. Margaret Warner talks with Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, about his recent trip to Kosovar refugee camps.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates that 860,000 people have fled the province since March 24th when NATO air strikes began. Another 100,000 people left for asylum in European countries before the bombing started. Most of the refugees are ethnic Albanians forced from their homes and villages by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian troops. When the conflict began, there were 1.8 million of them living in Kosovo. Neighboring Albania has most of the refugees -- nearly a half million. Macedonia is next with almost a quarter million. Montenegro has about 69,000, and Bosnia Herzegovina has about 22,000. About 78,000 have been settled in 28 countries around the world, including nearly 5400 in the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians remain inside Kosovo -- many of them homeless. No one knows exactly how they are existing. The United Nations estimates as many as 90 percent of all ethnic Albanians have been forced to leave their homes. In the desperately overcrowded camps in Albania and Macedonia, soaring temperatures have brought new health threats. War crimes investigators have been interviewing refugees, hearing stories of massacres, rapes, and torture. These men said they were beaten and starved.
MAN: (speaking through interpreter) They told us to put our heads down. They said they were going to cut off our heads and shoot us, and slice off our limbs. Then they started to beat us again. They beat me for five days with everything they could find.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This mother was terrified as Serb soldiers separated women from their families and then raped ten women by the side of the road.
WOMAN: (speaking through interpreter) They said to the girls, you are beautiful. You are for me. We're not going to shoot you but we want your families to see what you are doing. They threw the girls to the ground, then they ripped every part of their clothing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Adults and children show signs of emotional trauma, and there are reports of villages burned to the ground and of refugees being used as human shields against NATO bombing attacks. But those reports are hard to verify.
|Back before winter?|
MARGARET WARNER: And joining me is Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. Late last month he led an 11-day humanitarian assessment mission into Kosovo, Serbia and other parts of Yugoslavia. He came to Washington today to brief US and congressional officials on his trip. Welcome Mr. Undersecretary. Thanks for coming in. If this impasse, this negotiating impasse were resolved tomorrow, how quickly could you resettle all of the refugees who want to go back home?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO, UN Under-Secretary General: Well, that will not depend only the us, on the United Nations. Refugees, as a rule, have a mind of their own. And however organized we might try to make this repatriation unfold in the next few months, many of them are likely to want to return spontaneously. They are close to home. Kosovo is a small province. Some of them are only a couple of hours away from home. And it would be very difficult to hold them back, provided, obviously, a security environment is created, which is precondition number one for them to go home.
MARGARET WARNER: What is your definition, though, of a secure or security environment? If you take -- say once the Serb forces withdraw, NATO troops are going in, at what point would you feel comfortable having the refugees start to return?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Well, as you know, the international military force that will be going in intends to deploy very rapidly. We are told that within four weeks, they are likely to have reached the total strength, which I understand will be 50,000 soldiers. That's a lot of soldiers for a small province like Kosovo. So I would say that after basically a fortnight, it should be possible for people to start returning in a climate of security.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, will you be able to get them all back before winter? That has always been the big push?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: That's a very difficult question. That should
be the objective because there is nothing more rewarding for humanitarian
agencies than take people back home. So we should try. We should try
and take them all home before winter. The task is daunting. We have
basically three and a half months before the winter sets in. It always
happens earlier in the Balkans than in the rest of Europe; therefore,
the work that needs to be done in terms of clearing mines, possible
booby traps, clearing unexploded ordinance, procuring building materials,
preparing food and repairing, you know, basic infrastructure, health,
schools, providing them, in other words, with a modicum of support for
them to face
MARGARET WARNER: But will you want to get some of these things in place that you mentioned, let's just say, clearing mines but things like getting food in, or getting in building supplies -- would you want to have some of those in place before any were allowed back or not?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Yes. Yes. We have wanted that in all our repatriation operations. And it doesn't work that way. Ideally we should have it already all ready for them to return and we would then organize their gradual return, region by region, town by town, et cetera. I'm afraid it won't work that way.
MARGARET WARNER: And, implicit in what you're telling me is that UNHCR, or the international security force, NATO, the Macedonian police, whoever is in charge, no one has the authority under international law, from blocking these people from going back. Is that what you're saying?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: No. Absolutely. And why should we block them it? It is their legitimate right to return home to take possession of their properties, to do whatever they can to repair homes that have, as we saw, by and large, been burned, looted, some destroyed, as have their shops and small enterprises. How can we prevent them from returning? On the contrary, we should facilitate their return and take whatever measures are possible before the winter to restore a modicum of normality for them.
|A psychological devastation.|
MARGARET WARNER: You were in Kosovo. You're one of the few international officials who has been able to go in recently. Tell us more about what they are going to find when they return home. How wide is the devastation and destruction?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Yes. Well, devastation is perhaps too strong a word. Devastation, as we just saw on your screens, is a psychological devastation, the devastation done to their lives, to their minds, to their mental balance after such a trauma. But basically the physical infrastructure is still there. I mean, bridges have not been destroyed to the extent that they have been in Serbia. Industrial plants that didn't have any military relevance are there. The land is ready to be cleared and cultivated again. What they will find is destruction and burning, damage done to their private property. Most of their homes are burned, are looted, as I said, their shops, their enterprises. All of this will require a great deal of effort on the part of the international community before the winter, so that they can actually repair their dwellings.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And what about things like electricity or water supplies? Is that -- I mean you were there. Is there electricity?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Yes, there is electricity in the main cities of Kosovo. I repeat, not as much damage has been caused to that type of service in Kosovo as has been the case in Serbia. So, in that sense, it might be easier to restore basic services in Kosovo than it will be in Serbia.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, while were you there, you also, I read your report to the Security Council last week, you actually interviewed some of the internally displaced refugees. How did you find them? How were you given access to them? Tell us about that.
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: We interviewed many of them, albeit in areas that were not necessarily those we wished to visit. But around Pulievo in the northern part of the country and Wilosavac in the central part of the country, we could interview many of them. They also gave us information about pockets of other internally displaced in the vicinity which confirm that there are several hundred thousand still alive and waiting for the environment to be created for them to descend from their mountains and hills and return home. And the stories they tell us are I'm afraid, as terrible as the ones we've been hearing from refugees in neighboring countries and from other displaced persons who have reached Montenegro; stories of terror, systematic persecution, using all kinds of means, and basically intended to displace them and deport them to neighboring countries in a fairly organized manner.
|Concerned for their safety.|
MARGARET WARNER: So how were the people you spoke with? How did they happen to still be there?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Well, they have been -- those we spoke to, those who are internally displaced, have been moving around, have been moving in the mountains and in the hills. And those we met had been regrouped by the Yugoslav security forces in areas that are close to their villages, but they have not yet been allowed to return to their villages. The number of men, you know that we've been worried about the fate of men in military age, appeared normal. The proportion was normal. Their main concern after what they went through, their main concern was security. They didn't ask for assistance. They didn't ask for food. They did say that many needed medical attention. But their primary concern was their safety. And their safety can only be provided by a strong, credible, and dissuasive international force.
MARGARET WARNER: And how did their health look to you?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: There was no malnutrition, as such, among those that we saw - certainly no famine - which doesn't mean that the others that are isolated in mountainous areas are not suffering from food deprivation. But they looked generally all right, but with a great anxiety, with fear. It was obvious that they feared every moment of their life in those conditions until an international presence, which they were appealing for, is deployed.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, did you also speak to Serb civilians who were there?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Yes, we spoke to quite a few, including, of course, the official authorities in Kosovo. They are not all Serbs, you know. There are other ethnic groups like Turks and Gypsies living in Kosovo. We spoke with all of them.
MARGARET WARNER: And, for instance, did the Serbs living there, were they able -- were they living in their homes or were they also displaced?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Some of them have been displaced in an earlier phase of this conflict, last year, as a matter of fact. There were Serb minorities in Albanian majority villages. Some of them were targeted and had to leave and have moved back to Serbia. Presumably they have been returning to those areas in recent times. And what we fear is that a need for revenge that we hope the Albanian returnees will keep under control might, I'm afraid, push many Serbs out of Kosovo in the weeks ahead -- creating another internal displacement problem in Serbia.
MARGARET WARNER: What did you find was the attitude of the Serb civilians who were there? I mean I don't know how honestly they spoke with you, but -
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Some of them -- some of them admitted that brutalities had actually happened. They attributed that to years of isolation, to what they consider as an unfair punishment of the Serb people, and to the effect that the NATO bombing campaign has had on the mental balance of some Serb civilians or indeed Serb policemen and soldiers. But all those explanations, even if you put them together, if you take them together, do not justify the extent of violence that we have witnessed.
MARGARET WARNER: I hate to push you on this timetable thing, but you were quoted today as saying you really didn't think all of the refugees or even a lot of them could get back before winter. Was that an accurate quote? I mean I know you say you're going to try, but what's really realistic?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Well, realistic might be to stage the returns, and depending on the progress that is achieved by humanitarian agencies between now and winter, to decide how many should return and help those who should remain in Albania in Macedonia and in Montenegro to face the winter there and repatriate them next year. But this is theory. I repeat, we are not in control of the refugees' mind and will. They might all decide to go back before the winter.
MARGARET WARNER: Has a resettlement of this scale ever been attempted before sort of in one fell swoop?
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Yes, we have had operations of this kind in other parts of the world, you know, Bangladesh in the early 70's, Cambodia six years ago, Mozambique five years ago. We have had large-scale repatriations of this type. So humanitarian agencies of the UN system and non-governmental organizations have some experience. But here truly, the time we're given is very short indeed.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, good luck with it. Thank you very much.
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Thank you.