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Yugoslavia: International Aid Agencies Helping Kosovo Refugees

Prague, 1 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Food, water and shelter are basic human needs, and for the tens of thousands of refugees displaced by the Kosovo crisis, they can spell the difference between life and death.

Already there are warnings that those ethnic Albanians hiding in the Kosovar forests and hills to escape Serbian security forces are facing starvation within a matter of days.

For those who are not trapped in the hinterland but who have been able to reach Kosovo's southern and western borders, the situation is better. That's because international aid agencies are present to provide the basics of food packs, medical and hygiene supplies, blankets and tents.

Aid officials estimate that in recent days around 150,000 people have fled the fighting and are now at the frontiers with Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Aid agencies have swung into action to help these destitute and deeply distressed refugees.

Each food pack and blanket reaching them is the result of a long and complicated organizational chain, a chain which has been tried and tested through so many humanitarian disasters this century.

Let's look at some the individual links in this chain, as exemplified by the efforts of the Red Cross, one of the big aid agencies, which is nearly always first on the scene of a disaster. Many other agencies, large and small, operate on similar principles.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has its headquarters in the wooded hills overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland. This complex of buildings, grouped around an old resort hotel, is at the center of the Red Cross' worldwide communications network. As the Kosovo crisis is situated in Europe, it falls under the regional desk headed by Swiss national Pierre Kreyenbuehl.

Kreyenbuehl and his staff are in daily contact with the heads of the teams in the field in Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The teams are a mix of workers from the national Red Cross organizations and foreign experts sent by the ICRC.

Together, mostly by phone or e-mail, they assess the expected needs for the same day and the days ahead. Forward planning done many months ago in expectation of possible trouble in Kosovo now pays off, because the various teams have good stockpiles of necessities at their disposal locally. As these stockpiles run down, they are replenished by truck deliveries from the Red Cross' central regional store in Zagreb, Croatia. The Zagreb facility is in turn supplied by truck from the Red Cross' delivery sources in Western Europe.

ICRC spokeswoman Doris Pfister told RFE that many of the arriving refugees are often distraught and bewildered, having lost contact with other family members.

"In Macedonia yesterday (Wednesday), the situation was quite dramatic because there was a very long queue in front of the border, a queue of refugees several kilometers long. The refugees had to wait long hours to get into Macedonia, so we did a (food) distribution into this queue in no-man's-land, into Kosovo."

The refugees are flooding out of Kosovo in such numbers however, that individual aid organizations could soon be swamped. Judith Kumin, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told RFE/RL from Geneva that the scale of the crisis is rapidly outstripping the resources available in the countries hosting refugees. She said foreign governments are now starting to fly in aid supplies to the Macedonian capital, Skopje, and the Albanian capital, Tirana, for distribution through the host governments and through the UNHCR.

"At the rate people are leaving Kosovo or being expelled, the problem is now of such a magnitude that no single organization will be able to cope with it. It will take a broad international effort to bring enough relief materials into these inaccessible areas with rather poor infrastructure."

Kumin says there will be a large-scale meeting on Tuesday (April 6) in Geneva under the auspices of the UNHCR, which will bring together donor countries, aid organizations and representatives of the affected countries around Kosovo, to give shape to this international aid effort.