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Yugoslavia: Kosovo's Ethnic Albanian Refugees Close To Catastrophe

Prague, 4 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The scenes across much of the southern Serb province of Kosovo in recent days are eerily reminiscent of the worse days of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Long lines of tractor-drawn farm carts, slowly carrying terrified women and children away from the smoldering remains of their recently shelled and burned homes to an uncertain future. Refugees cowering in forests with only the clothes on their back, little food or water, no medicine, and no shelter.

Contrary to promises made by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic last week, the Serb and Yugoslav offensive in Kosovo is n-o-t over. In fact, say observers on the scene, the offensive has escalated, driving an additional 35,000 to 70,000 ethnic Albanians from their homes in recent days.

According to the UN refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the total number now displaced from their homes in more than five months of fighting could top 200,000. This includes those who have sought refuge in neighboring Albania and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, as well as those on the move inside Kosovo.

With the escalation of the Serbian offensive, ethnic Albanians say the Serbs are no longer battling the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), but are concentrating on driving ethnic Albanian civilians from their homes. They say that Serb forces are shelling and burning homes of ethnic Albanians who have already fled to ensure that they will not return.

Moderate ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova charged that "Serb forces kill civilians, burn and destroy settlements and entire villages, and carry out ethnic cleansing."

Mans Nyberg, spokesman for the UNHCR in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, said he and his fellow aid workers have seen "countless houses burning in practically every village we passed through." And he adds: "It is very difficult to see any sound military objective for such behavior by the Serbian police forces."

It is only in the last few days that international relief agencies have been able to reach any of the refugees hiding in the mountains and dense forests of Kosovo. They have found desperate people camping in the open, sleeping under trees and even in dry river-beds, without any blankets, mattresses or tents. In one area, relief workers discovered that five women had given birth to babies within the last four days. It is, says Nyberg, "a humanitarian catastrophe in the making."

Mick Lorentzen, emergency coordinator for the UN's World Food Program in Pristina, has just returned from taking food to an estimated 2,000 refugees hiding in a nearly inaccessible forest. He paints a very bleak picture of the state of the refugees, some of whom have been hiding out for a week now.

"What we saw in the forests was 95 percent women and children, " says Lorentzen. "You had whole families of maybe 15 people, old men around 60 who looked about 80. They spread out the food as much as they could. We managed to get some supplies to them, including bottled water, some family food parcels."

"The problem is that you're having whole villages that are on the move. Within the mountain range itself, there's an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people and this is not the only area that's being affected. People are moving every day. It's a changing situation. The forests are very, very dense, so it's sometimes hard to find them. How much longer are they going to stay out, nobody knows."

Nyberg says the only solution is for the fighting to stop so that the refugees can come back into the open to places where it is easier to feed them and give them medicine and shelter.

But both Nyberg and Lorentzen agree that the refugees are far too terrified and distrustful of Serb authorities to return to their villages right now.

Lorentzen says that while he was in the mountains delivering food to refugees on Sunday, the Yugoslav Government air-dropped leaflets telling the refugees it was safe for them to return to their villages, and that if they did, they would be protected. As the refugees were reading the flyers, Lorentzen said, they could hear Serb shelling just a kilometer away. Concludes Lorentzen: "The people are just not going to return while this is going on."

He also questions what they have to go home to after so much destruction by Yugoslav and Serb forces.

"In some cases you can go on a 15-20 kilometers ride and every village you pass through, there's nobody there. A lot of houses are totally destroyed, so a question has got to be, what are they going to go back to?" asks Lorentzen.

In addition to the logistical problems that trucks full of food, water and medicine cannot drive into the forests where the refugees are hiding, Serb forces are routinely blocking attempts by aid agencies to reach people in distress, say UNHCR's Nyberg.

"This is very serious obstruction," says Nyberg. "President Milosevic has repeatedly assured the humanitarian organizations that they had free access, they can go anywhere they want. The same has been assured to us by the police commander in Pristina. In spite of all this, it happens almost on a daily basis that our field teams are being stopped by police at checkpoints and being refused access."

The UNHCR has added its voice to that of many countries around the world in appealing to Milosevic to halt the Serb offensive and allow his ethnic Albanian citizens to live a normal life again.

Although those living rough are now coping with sweltering temperatures into the high 30s (Celsius), aid agencies are already thinking about getting them shelter to survive the winter.

Is there really a possibility that these refugees will still be in the forests and mountains when winter comes? "I certainly hope not," says Lorentzen, "but what will happen is any bodys guess."