Prague, 10 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For the past three months the world has been shocked by haunting images of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian Kosovars fleeing their war-torn homeland. In the coming three months, those images may be repeated, only this time the pictures may be of a traumatized people returning to what, by most accounts, will be a Kosovo in ruins.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the lead international aid organization responsible for returning the nearly two million ethnic Albanians who fled their homes and either lived without adequate shelter within the province or who sought sanctuary in refugee camps in neighboring Macedonia or Albania.
UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski told RFE/RL by telephone from Vienna that his group is already planning "intensively" for the refugees' return. He says he expects "as smooth a return as possible." At the same time, he acknowledges that the effort -- involving shelter, food, logistics, health and community services -- will be difficult and complex.
According to Janowski, UNHCR has prepared two separate scenarios. The first foresees the collapse of a recent peace agreement calling for a Serb troop withdrawal from Kosovo and the introduction of a NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR). Under that scenario, the refugees would stay where they are.
The second scenario foresees the agreement holding and envisions half the refugees and displaced persons returning to the province or to their homes in three months. Under either scenario, Janowski says the refugees will have to be prepared for winter.
If Serb forces do withdraw and a NATO-led peacekeeping force moves in, Janowski says a "phased return" of refugees could begin very soon.
"The plan essentially calls for creation of a logistical hub in Macedonia, with Kosovo supplied from there. Virtually everything is needed, from bricks, roof tiles and plastic sheeting to ... clothes, sleeping bags, mattresses, and beds. 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."
Janowski says UNHCR will concentrate first on trying to save the lives of the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who remained in the province during the conflict -- those who were forced to live rough without food and medical assistance from international relief workers.
Then, he says, UNHCR plans to help around half of the 800,000 people now living in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro who are likely to want to return to Kosovo as soon as possible. He said final efforts would be aimed at returning refugees and displaced sent abroad.
Less attention has focused on what experts say will be the inevitable flight of Kosovar Serbs as the ethnic Albanians make their return. Janowski says reports indicate as many as 60,000 ethnic Serbs have already left and that the potential for further Serb flight from Kosovo poses a serious concern.
"We certainly hope this is not going to happen. The international community and UNHCR will do all in its might to prevent an exodus of Kosovo Serbs. It largely depends on what sort 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, will have to make sure Serbs are respected, that they are not pushed out or harassed in any way, and eventually for those who have left Kosovo, that they will be allowed to return."
The assistant U.S. Secretary of State for population, refugees and migration expresses similar support for the protection of all of Kosovo's people. The official, Julia Taft, also rejects the notion of some critics that the recent international peace agreement fails to set endpoints and does not resolve the long-term issue of Kosovo's political status. Taft spoke with RFE/RL from Washington:
"It's not for us to solve the issue. That's for the people of Kosovo to work out. In the Rambouillet agreement there was a framework for how one could reach a political process and that is still to be negotiated. But it is certain there will be an international presence until self-governance is effective, and the ultimate status of Kosovo will have to be determined in the long-run through elections and another process."
Taft tells RFE/RL that her office is focusing efforts on what needs to happen in the next few weeks and months.
Janowski says UNHCR knows from experience that the destruction of housing and the presence of minefields do not deter people from returning to their homes as long as they feel secure and do not have to live among former enemies. Because of this he says UNHCR expects to see a "significant" movement of people toward Kosovo if and when the Serbs withdraw and the international protection force moves in.
Janowski expresses "confidence" his organization can to handle the logistics of the refugee flow. But he acknowledges the need for a public information campaign to educate returnees on what they may face and how best to cope with problems. Janowski says UNHCR is stressing first the need for a calm and orderly return.
"We don't want to see a stampede toward Kosovo in a situation where things on the ground 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 they start going back. Of course, we don't have the administrative possibility of holding people back. All we can do is reason with them that if they go gradually they will go back more safely."
Beyond that, Janowski said the biggest challenge will be for the people of Kosovo to put this war behind them and learn to live together in peace. He says the task will be "fantastically difficult" and says it may take decades, if then, before all is forgotten.