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Yugoslavia: Interview With The UNHCR's Kris Jankowski

  • Lisa McAdams

Prague, June 10 (RFE/RL) -- The following is a transcript of an interview with UNHCR's Kris Janowski. 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: I understand that intense planning is underway. I was reading your memo, the press release, that intense planning is underway for the return [of refugees to Kosovo, in spite of the possible breakdown of the recent international peace agreement]. Can you bring us up to date on that planning? And where are the concerns?

A: Well, the concerns are many. One of the big concerns is, of course, whether this whole peace effort is going to fail or not. We have to plan for two different scenarios: one scenario with all the refugees staying where they are, in Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro, and the other scenario with some of the refugees, half of them perhaps, returning to Kosovo in the next three months. And those places, essentially all the places where the refugees are, or even the places where they will be returning to, will need to somehow be prepared for the winter.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what your plans are? How are you tackling some of these issues already?

A: Well, the plan is essentially to create a logistical hub in Macedonia, and Kosovo will be supplied from there. What well need in Kosovo is virtually everything: building material, house repair material, bricks, roof tiles, plastic sheeting, plywood for windows, clothes, sleeping bags, mattresses, beds, stoves, virtually everything, since a lot of the housing -- we estimate about 50 percent of the housing -- in Kosovo has been damaged or destroyed. A lot of houses have been gutted, looted or burned, so the people will be returning essentially to empty shells, and thatUs why they need everything. As far as the return itself is concerned, weUve got phased planning, with the first phase being essentially going into Kosovo, figuring out what the needs are, and then trying to stabilize the local population remaining in Kosovo.

We still have hundreds of thousands of people, we don't know exactly how many, staying in Kosovo. So the idea is to help them in the first place, stabilize them a little bit, help them with the basics, and then also help the people who'll be returning from neighboring countries. According to our planning, about half of the people, some 800,000 people who are now out of Kosovo in the neighboring countries or territories, are going to go back within the next three months, so we have to help these people, and then eventually, we'll go to returns from places that are farther away.

Q: And what about the fears Im reading about Serb flight if and when a peace agreement is reached? What plans are in place to halt or aid that flow of people?

A: We certainly hope this is not going to happen. The international community, and especially UNHCR, will do all in its might to prevent an exodus of Kosovo Serbs. Many have left already. It will largely depend on what kind of security police and law and order arrangements will be in place. Whoever will be in control in Kosovo, in terms of police and security, has to make sure the Serbs are respected, that they are not pushed out, that they are not harassed in any way. And eventually, those who have left Kosovo, they are allowed to return.

Q: You lead me naturally to my next question, and that is that there are a number of reports now coming in, from Pristina and Pec, for example, that the number of paramilitary and police forces has actually increased since word of the peace announcement. Do you have any more details there?

A: Well, it seems to be some kind of barbaric race against time. Theyre probably putting more paramilitary forces into Kosovo to intimidate people to burn more (houses, to destroy more property. I mean, it's terrible what's happening there, but the position is that the barbarity that has been going on for the last two months is actually intensifying now that the Serbs feel the end of their rule of Kosovo will be near.

Q: And I imagine that makes your work even harder?

A: Well, certainly, it seems to me they are simply trying to catch up and destroy as much as possible before they have pull out, I mean, its really abominable. And of course, at the same time, all kinds of declarations are coming from Belgrade from Yugoslav officials, saying they would like to control who gets back into Kosovo, so it's really quite outrageous. We cannot have a situation with a regime which is responsible for what has happened in Kosovo over the past two months be given any say in whos getting back in.

Q: Also yesterday, the UN Undersecretary General for Human Affairs ... ruled out the possibility that all uprooted Kosovar Albanians could be returned home before the cold weather, three months time, for example. Because of the sheer number of people involved and the massive destruction that youre also highlighting, do you agree with that assessment, and how might that change these future plans of return that youre involved in?

A: We dont really know, I mean anything we could say about this would be pure speculation. We think a lot of people will return before winter if security conditions permit -- meaning as long as Serbs pull out and theres some sort of international security presence on the ground. Of course, it's not going to be everybody. We can safely say that [some refugees. Eds: percentage unintelligible] are not going to go back before winter. But probably about half of them, perhaps even more will go back, so whether we say its half or 70 percent or fewer or more, its really impossible to predict. But there will be, certainly, despite all the destruction, despite the [land mine] problem, despite all the difficulties, therell be certainly a significant movement toward Kosovo.

Q: I was going to say ... if half went back, as were speculating, would you be comfortable with that? Is the UNHCR prepared for that amount?

A: Yes. We will be prepared for that amount, even for more. But we will have to, at the same time, through information campaigns in Albania, in Macedonia and in Montenegro, tell people that you will go back to Kosovo, but dont rush toward the border. We dont want to see a stampede toward Kosovo, in a situation where things on the ground in Kosovo are not safe. We want at least the minefields to be marked, and somehow fenced off from other areas. We want at least the main roads to be cleared and safe before the people start going back. Of course, we dont have any administrative possibility of holding people back. All we can do is reason with them, and tell them if you go gradually, youll be going in more safely.

Q: Are you at all worried about some of the reports that are surfacing now about possible ill effects of uranium from NATO bombing on the ground, and is that going to affect your operation in any way. Its sort of linked to the de-mining issue as well.

A: Well, I must say that this is the first time Ive actually heard of that problem, so it's really hard for me to tell.

Q: Fair enough. And I actually have just heard it from a colleague, its coming from NATO apparently ... What, then, in your view then, is the biggest challenge or hurdle facing your organization and the people in general?

A: Well, the biggest hurdle facing our organization is to somehow organize the logistics of all of it, and make this return as smooth as possible. We are quite sure its not going to work like a Swiss watch. Nonetheless, we can make it as smooth as possible and thats perhaps the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge for the people of Kosovo is to put the experience of this war behind them and try to live together side by side. Its fantastically difficult. Itll probably take decades, rather than years, before all this is forgotten, before the Serbs and the Albanians of Kosovo who had lived together for centuries will be able to do it again in peace and relative friendship.