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Yugoslavia: Macedonia Pledges to Avoid New Forced Deportations

Stenkovec, Macedonia; 9 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Rukie Halimi -- one of the hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians who have fled from their homes in the province in recent weeks -- was wandering around the Stenkovec refugee transit camp in Macedonia, filled with a new terror.

She was afraid she was about to be sent to Germany against her will, while her husband and two small sons were only 42 kms away in the Macedonian city of Kumanovo, unaware of her whereabouts.

Fortunately, she was soon reunited with her family. But her fears seemed well-founded after Macedonia -- in its desperation to ease the burden created by refugees on its territory -- began flying Kosovars to Turkey earlier this week.

Correspondents who witnessed the transfer of the refugees onto planes at Skopje airport last Monday (April 5) said the scene resembled a mass deportation rather than a mercy flight.

Reuters reported that Macedonian officials at the airport asked reporters not to tell refugees where they were headed. One unnamed official was quoted as saying "We have a problem getting them on the plane if they know where they are going."

In the evacuation on Monday, refugees said they bordered buses at Blace on the border with Kosovo, were driven to the airport, and only then were told they were being sent to Turkey. Reuters said many of the stunned men and women burst into tears. One man tried to escape, only to be dragged back by Macedonian police.

Arsim Zekolli -- a spokesman for the Macedonia-based ethnic-Albanian group El Hilal -- is sharply critical of Macedonian government actions. He said many refugees are being "taken by force, crying and screaming." He added that "practically every family is being split" and said the refugees are traumatized that their closest relatives might be sent to distant countries.

The controversy was further heightened Tuesday night when the Macedonian authorities, without warning, packed up 9,300 refugees from Blace and sent them by bus to Albania.

Paula Ghedini -- a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency the UNHCR in Skopje -- criticized the action. She said the Macedonian government violated UNHCR standards that all movements of refugees should be voluntary and should keep families intact. Macedonia's Deputy Prime Minister Radmila Kiprjanova later said the government regretted that families were separated in the evacuation. But she said flatly that "none of the refugees have been forced onto buses."

However, Zekolli with El Hilal said the Macedonian government's treatment of the refugees has only compounded the terrors they have already experienced in being expelled from their homeland.

"These people needed immediate assistance because they were coming from a troubled region and what they faced, instead of relief, was another trauma, maybe for many of them even a worse kind of trauma than they had been experiencing in Kosovo itself."

OSCE chairman Knut Vollebaek -- who is also Norwegian foreign minister --discussed the issue with the Macedonian government on a short visit to Skopje earlier this week. He said bluntly that "forced removal is unacceptable." He added that Norway will not accept any refugees who might be sent there against their will.

Zekolli says the Macedonian government was in too much of a hurry to get rid of the refugees and should have allowed more time for relatives to find each other.

"We as an organization, we stressed on several occasions we were appealing that these people should be given a chance. If somebody is making a plan to deport them, as a [non-governmental organization], we have no capacity or authority to stop them. But what we can only point out is that ... these people [should be given] 10 days or 15 days to stay in this country [so] they can find their relatives and avoid any eventual additional traumas."

Deputy Prime Minister Kiprjanova says the government is working with the UNHCR and the Red Cross to put in place a registration and tracing system so families can be reunited. She added that "it would indeed be inhuman to separate families."

Andrei Neacsu Saint-Martin -- a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies -- says his agency is working with the UNHCR to make sure that all movement of refugees to other countries is voluntary and that families are reunited.

"What we are supporting is UNHCR's position as well, which is people to be transported to third countries but on specific conditions, and they have to be willing to go there; they have to be allowed to choose the country where they go; and they have to have a proper address there where they go. This will facilitate our tracing efforts."

In one improvement noticed by correspondents in Stenkovec by the end of this week, signs were posted alerting refugees where they could register voluntarily to go to various countries, including Germany, Norway and Turkey. As a result, refugees' fears of forcible deportations seemed to have abated somewhat.

OSCE chairman Vollebaek said he is confident the Macedonian government now agrees that all transfers out of the country must be made only with the cooperation of the refugees affected.

"This I have discussed with the government and there is no disagreement that the transfer has to be done on a voluntary basis. That is the least that we can do for these people."