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Yugoslavia: Violence Looms Over Kosovars' Homecoming

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 19 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- More than one month after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic reached a deal with U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, tens of thousands of displaced ethnic Albanians have returned to their homes in Kosovo, but they face continued violence and uncertainty.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says that in many cases the refugees are returning to ruined homes, spoiled crops and in some cases villages that were wiped out. A UNHCR spokesman told RFE/RL that a strong element of fear remains for both ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo.

The UNHCR last Friday published preliminary results of a study on shelter needs in Kosovo. Nearly 60 percent of the houses in the 240 villages visited by UNHCR and other aid agencies inspected during early November were either totally destroyed or so heavily damaged that they will require major repairs to be habitable.

About 90 of the villages visited by UNHCR staff were unaffected by the conflict. The remaining 110 villages as well as the larger towns are to be assessed in the second phase of the survey.

UNHCR's spokesperson in Geneva, Kris Janowski, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview yesterday that more than ten percent of Kosovo's population remains displaced. He said about 100,000 people are displaced within Kosovo. In addition, he said some 40,000 are still in Montenegro, 20,000 in Albania, 10,000 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and over 50,000 in western Europe.

Janowski, who has visited Kosovo twice in the last three months, said virtually no people are left up in the hills, except for perhaps a few hundred, who are still refusing to go back to their villages. Janowski said, "But even people who have gone back to their villages often have gone back to areas which are totally ruined. When you travel through western Kosovo, you travel through a wasteland with entire villages having been wiped out; crops were not brought in; the livestock was abandoned and so on, so they are returning to extremely difficult conditions where their houses are missing roofs and windows. We are trying to give them some plastic and plywood so they can make at least a room or two watertight and basically survive the winter in difficult but nonetheless bearable conditions."

The Albanians, who constitute nearly 90 percent of the province's population of nearly two million, are not the only ones suffering. Janowski said Kosovo's Serb population has also experienced "considerable displacement." He said UNHCR estimates at least 20,000 Serbs and Montenegrins have left Kosovo for Serbia, Vojvodina, and Montenegro since the fighting started. He said that although Serbs have remained in larger towns such as Mitrovica, Pristina and Pec, central and western Kosovo is now "totally empty" of both the original Serbian population and also of the 19,000 Serbian refugees whom the authorities settled there after the Serb Krajina region fell to Croatia three years ago. He said of the Krajina Serb refugees, only perhaps 3-4,000 remain in Kosovo. Janowski said indigenous Serbs have also been leaving the province in droves.

Janowski said, "Fear, which is one of the main problems in Kosovo both for the Albanians and for the Serbs, still very much remains. It is a very precarious situation. You've got incidents on a virtually daily basis. The Kosovo rebels in certain areas have moved into positions vacated by the Serbian forces, which leads to tensions. There are skirmishes and abductions. So the fear and anxiety are still very much there and until this anxiety is removed it will be difficult to speak of people actually resuming normal lives."

Janowski, who was UNHCR's spokesman in Sarajevo for several years during the Bosnian war, said the violence and displacement of people in Kosovo has never been on the scale of what happened in Bosnia. He said, "From our point of view, Bosnia was a very important lesson... that humanitarian aid should not become a substitute, an ersatz, for a lasting political solution and this is what we have been saying all along. We are afraid that this might happen in Kosovo, even though there is an effort underway to get a political deal going and this is probably the most important thing. We can prevent the people from starving, from freezing to death during the winter and we can essentially keep our convoys going as long as the situation is as stable as it is now. But if it gets out of hand, we will see new displacement and new refugees."

In an incident last week unusual in its scale, Yugoslav troops detained 2,400 ethnic Albanians for more than 24 hours in the Kosovar village of Ljubizda. Villagers later told a UNHCR team that some 200 soldiers had arrived in the morning in six armored trucks with mounted machine guns. The soldiers took 400 men and older boys to a store, and 2,000 women and children to a school. The soldiers denied food to all the detainees and threatened to burn the village unless residents surrendered all their guns.

As Janowski put it, "Given the amount of fear and anxiety that already is there, this sort of behavior really makes things much worse."

He added, "The message that we are trying to get to the authorities is that it is a very difficult, a very delicate situation. It is a situation where a huge portion of the population has been terrified and intimidated and if they ever want to have some sort of a decent solution with the two ethnic groups living side by side, they have to really restrain themselves. This goes for the Serbian forces who are powerful and plentiful, but also for the rebel side, the military actions of which, often provocative, do not help either."

In an apparent response to last week's incidents, the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) issued a "political declaration" on Sunday saying "the current trend in Kosovo is characterized by persistent attacks by the Serb military and police resulting in the killing, wounding, arrest and kidnapping of many Albanians." UCK said these actions have brought the situation "to the brink of eruption with the likely chance of turning into a recurrent conflict with regional repercussions."

The insurgents' statement said, "The situation is becoming unbearable for our people, and that obliges the UCK to protect them." It added that it has always welcomed the initiatives of the international community, especially of the U.S., to resolve the Kosovo problem, adding that the UCK "continues to be ready to cooperate in favor of a just and permanent solution". However, it expresses concern that "some international circles are comparing UCK's liberation struggle with the barbarian acts of Milosevic's criminals".

UCK remains a force to be reckoned with, despite heavy losses on the battlefield over the summer and its subsequent self-imposed cease-fire pockmarked by its continued ambushes of Serbian police patrols. UCK is starting to gain increasing acceptance as a negotiating partner, albeit not by Belgrade. U.S. envoy Christopher Hill met again earlier this week with UCK representatives near Malisevo to discuss an interim settlement for Kosovo.