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Yugoslavia: Interview With U.S. Refugee Official Julia Taft

  • Lisa McAdams



Prague, 10 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Following is a transcript of an interview with Julia Taft, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration. The interview, conducted by RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams, focuses on the challenges ahead as the international community works to return ethnic Albanian refugees to homes in Kosovo.

Q: The first thing that will help me is to understand your role, your bureau's role in the whole unfolding refugee situation in the region; specifically, what will your bureau be charged with doing if and when a peace accord is reached and security established?

A: For our bureau, which is the focus of humanitarian assistance for the refugee return, we will be working closely with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and their staff in Albania, in Montenegro, in Macedonia, and of course in Geneva to make sure that the sequencing of decisions and the deployment of staff and commodities are implemented in a coordinated way. We will be funding a great amount of the assistance, particularly those for NGO's that have been identified as implementing partners, we will be working to make sure that to the extent possible that the humanitarian community is linked in well with the KFOR, the military security presence groups, by having liaison staff people assigned, and to make sure that the communications as well. And of course, we plan to maintain our presence and our support for the refugee camps and the host families that are in Macedonia and Albania. You know, we don't expect everyone to go back right away -- Kosovo has been devastated by the village-to-village destruction that has existed, and we think people will make decisions to phase their return, and so we want to make sure that those who choose not to go right away will be able to receive the safety and assistance that they've been having the last couple of months.

Q: You're mentioning that you're also involved in coordinating the way funding will break down -- I haven't really seen any numbers. Do we know how much an operation like this will cost?

A: Well, we don't know. I think we're talking about two simultaneous operations. Obviously, while this is going on, we have to plan for the assistance for the internally displaced people inside of Kosovo; there may be 600,000 people who have been hiding in the hills or been displaced internally. Their situation may be desperate, and so the funding for that will go through the UNHCR, through the International Committee for the Red Cross, and through other NGO activities. We do not have an estimate on that expense yet. In Geneva, this week they are trying to draw up consolidated appeals which will identify how much they believe will be needed. Our government, the U.S. government, usually pays about 20 to 25 percent of the overall cost, so we are looking forward to seeing what the estimates are that will come out of Geneva. But let me just say that we've got the consideration of providing assistance for the internally displaced within Kosovo, we have the costs that will be associated with the movement of people from Albania and Macedonia back into Kosovo, which would include their initial food, assistance in rebuilding their houses, establishing clean water and wells and all of that. All of that is going to be identified as a specific budget for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Then we also have the maintenance issues -- how do you take care of those that will be remaining in Albania and Macedonia in the near term, how do we winterize the facilities for them, how do we make sure that they are taken care of? So we've got three projects going on at the same time.

Q: And let me ask you, then, in your view, with all of these things happening, and just the natural constraints in the region, what in your view is a reasonable time frame? I mean, we're seeing this three-month time frame mentioned. Are you comfortable with that?

A: Well, no. As a matter of fact, what we are hoping is that there will be enough information provided to the refugees, particularly in Albania and Macedonia, to tell them not to try to return spontaneously. We will assist them, the international community and the UNHCR will assist them when it is safe to do so. So we are not expecting any assisted repatriation for the first month, so that takes us, that will be sort of the end of July. Then it needs to be phased in. Those people who will be going to villages and towns where they can become self-sufficient fairly soon may be th first to return. What we're doing is a very interesting activity with the UNHCR, which is, they have developed an assessment, a village by village assessment form, which we will be helping the NGOs and them gather data on this, and fill it in for an information system which can be shared then with refugees in Albania and Macedonia in particular and with the relief agencies, so that they can see, village by village, how many houses are there, what's the nature of any land mine presence, how is the water source, so that people will have information about when they might be able to go back to their village and their city. We think that all of it is going to hinge on the security question, and as soon as it is secure for people to go back, and they think that there is an assistance structure in place, I think many people will return. They are not all going to return in three months, and so I think it's important for the planners to at least have their programs in place, that should refugees determine that they don't want to go back in three months, that they will not be forced by the conditions in Albania or Macedonia to do so prematurely.

Q: Vis-a-vis the security issue, I wanted to bring up with you the reports of increased cross-border shelling into northern Albania in the last two days, a new situation where this is also happening in Macedonia, creating further problems for not only the refugees but more internally displaced. Are you at all concerned this could be a sign the conflict is spreading, and how will will this factor into the plans you're trying to put in place?

A: I don't think the conflict is spreading. I think this might be a final salvo on the part of retreating troops, or troops that are planning to be leaving. We are very much encouraged by the progress that is being achieved, diplomatically, to end this conflict, and are starting to see some signs of the Serbian military planning to withdraw. We're looking, of course, for the final UN resolution, which will set the framework for this, but we're very hopeful. So, in terms of the border shelling, this is not a new phase of a campaign, I think it's the end of what has been a very tragic and malicious conflict on the part of the ... Serbs, and they probably just want to punctuate their last few days with some final shelling, but it's certainly not an expansion.

Q: And as regards the Serbs, there are also possible fears now of a Serb flight, if and when an agreement is reached and security is ensured so that the returns can begin. How big a concern is that, and is the U.S. doing anything about that?

A: Obviously, when the U.S. and NATO and the Allies said they want Kosovo safe and secure, it is to be safe and secure for everyone, not just for the Kosovar Albanians, but for the Kosovar Serbs; there are other nationalities there, Roma, Hungarians, etc. We want Kosovo safe for everyone, so the concern about the ethnic Serbs wanting to leave, or fearing their own future is a valid one, and we're very concerned about this. The combination of the military security presence until there can be an international security presence, and ultimately a Kosovar civilian police presence -- we all are designing them to ensure that the Serbs that are in Kosovo will feel safe and secure. But I must say that they will have to make decisions whether they believe it's safe to stay or leave, just like the Kosovar Albanians over the past year have made their own determinations whether it was safe to stay or leave. And we just hope at the end of this that those that remain will remain and be able to feel safe and start rebuilding Kosovo with the returning refugees.

Q: You lead me very naturally to my next question, and that is, is there an exit date for this whole scenario? We've got refugees going back in, and a NATO security (presence, but the key as I understood it, one of the sticking points, was this fact of Serb sovereignty over Kosovo, we don't seem to have solved that issue.

A: Well, it's not for us to solve that issue, it's for the people of Kosovo, and the people of Serbia and Montenegro to work on that, and of course in the Rambouillet agreements, there was a framework for how one would reach a political process, and I think this is still to be negotiatied, but it is certainly going to be, there will be an international presence until self-governance is effected, and the ultimate status of Kosovo will have to be determined in the long run through elections and another process. Right now, we are looking at what needs to happen in the next few weeks, few months, and year, as the institutions develop and as the political process evolves for the Kosovar people to determine their own future. It's up to them, but we believe we will have to have an international presence, not necessarily an international military presence, but certainly an international governance for the transition period, and everything is being developed so that will be implemented very very soon, but really at the end of the international protectorate status, or whatever it's going to be called, there will be a democratic process that will determine the future, and we hope there will be a democratic process to determine the leadership of Serbia as well, but our focus now is on Kosovo.

Q: Is there anything else that you feel I neglected to mention, that you'd like to share with us, just from your personal experience there, or something?

A: Well, I think that it's really important for us all to keep in mind that the future of Kosovo is in the hands of the Kosovo people, and that we need to respect their desires about how they want to structure their communities, and how and when they want to go back home. We are encouraging them not to go back until it has been determined that it is safe to do so. We are starting information campaigns in the various camps, but I think that it's important for those that have become refugees to know that the whole international community is trying to undergird a system that will allow their safe return, and that they must continue to be hopeful, and also very patient in this process, because it won't all come together in a matter of hours, it will take days and weeks until the structure can be put in place. But they have gone through so much trauma, we want to make their homecoming something that is eased, and informed, and empowering for them. That's what our challenge is over the next few days and weeks, to make sure that our planning and the UN's planning is one that involves them, and can build on their capabilities and their dreams, but they have to be patient, because it has to be safe before they can go back home.
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