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Yugoslavia: Macedonia, Aid Agencies, Pledge to Work Together

Skopje, 9 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After days of trading bitter recriminations, Macedonia and international relief agencies now seem determined to work together to ease the suffering of more than 140,000 Kosovar Albanian refugees in the country.

Both Macedonia, already struggling with its own severe economic problems, and the international agencies, were caught by surprise by a vast wave of refugees leaving the southern Serbian province shortly after NATO began air strikes against military targets in Yugoslavia. Thousands of refugees say they were forced from their homes in Kosovo by Serbian military and police forces.

Andrei Neacsu Saint-Martin, spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, says that because Macedonia was unprepared for the overwhelming influx, tens of thousands of refugees were forced to camp in the open in a muddy field at the Blace border crossing for up to a week.

"There was shock when this crisis occurred. Nobody expected this huge influx of refugees and displaced persons inside Yugoslavia, as well. But there are different factors that complicated the situation. And the fact that people were blocked in Blace for so many days is one of them."

Macedonia, facing international criticism, lashed out at the world community for not helping quickly enough. Macedonian authorities claimed that the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, did not supply tents in time and that NATO was slow in preparing refugee camps. The allegations have been rejected by both organizations.

In a particularly angry criticism, Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski claimed on national television that Macedonia had accepted 55,000 refugees before it received the first liter of juice or the first tent from abroad.

For their part, private aid agencies complained that Macedonia was being bureaucratic about registering them and allowing them to operate in the country, where they want to provide emergency food and medical care. And the UNHCR accused Macedonia of splitting up families and deporting refugees against their will.

But as the week wore on, the tone changed, and the Macedonian government and international organizations began emphasizing how they could work together. As Foreign Minister Aleksandr Dimitrov put it, "The only thing to do is to cooperate and help the refugees in Macedonia."

OSCE chairman Knut Vollebaek, who is also Norwegian foreign minister, was also looking to the future on a quick trip to Skopje earlier this week:

"Instead of criticizing each other for what we haven't done, I think what is important now is to get together and really do something for these refugees. And I, who comes from a country far away, I should be the last one to criticize anyone who is directly affected by this crisis."

The main obligation for taking care of the refugees in Macedonia will now fall to the UNHCR, which is also coordinating the activities of dozens of private charities that have arrived in the country in the last two weeks.

Arsim Zekolli is spokesman for El Hilal, an ethnic-Albanian group based in Macedonia that has been the primary organization helping the refugees since they started coming in large numbers a month ago. He said his group would be, in his words, "privileged and honored" to work with the Macedonian government if it would only ask. And he said it is actually quite easy to help the refugees.

"Instead of pointing fingers at each other, it will be very easy actually to make a plan. The plan is very simple. Be there with them and help them. That's the best plan."