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Crisis 1999
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Banished Kosovars leaving Macedonia

Refugees are Going Home

AIM Skopje, 22 June, 1999

The beginning of the end of a yet unseen exodus at the end of the twentieth century has started - the Kosovars have begun to go back to their homes. They have set out on their way back even before humanitarian organizations had given the signal that it was safe in Kosovo. On the contrary, although appeals had arrived that due to danger refugees should wait, the caravan called "desire" set out almost together with KFOR troops.

According to the data of the High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations, from the beginning of stabilisation of the crisis to this day, about 49,500 refugees have left the camps in Macedonia and reached Kosovo. According to the same source, there are about 199 thousand people in Mcadonia who have experienced the exodus from Kosovo.

Their life stories are strange. The men are starting on their way from Macedonia, leaving their families behind in order to see what was left of their houses, yards, hearths... They had left all that perhaps with no hope that they would ever return. They are going back now to get the answer to the question whether to continue life under tents or to return to the scorched land. They see the chaos in Kosovo, go back to Macedonia, and then pack up their families and go - towards Kosovo, despite everything.

At the Jazince border crossing, a man with remains of a quarter of a loaf of bread under his arm, says: "I visited my village near Urosevac. I saw the farm. Now I have a house and a barn that are burned to the ground. I did not find my tractor. I will return, because even that which is burned to the ground is mine. There I had lived even while I was sleeping under the tent". The name of the man is of no importance. This is a story of thousands of those who belong in the same chapter - the tragedy of the banished from Kosovo.

Spokesman of UNHCR Paola Gedini stressed a few times that refugees had to wait with their return because there were mines along the roads, houses were not fit for living, there is neither water, nor electricity in them, and so on. But such rational thinking does not refer to the impatient Kosovars. Dangerous or not, they are going home. On the average, three thousand Kosovars go home every day. The greatest number of Kosovo Albanians crossed the border on Monday when, according to data of UNHCR, 10 thousand of them headed towards their homes. "A very large number of refugees who had left their families in Macedonia and went to check the conditions, despite the destroyed homes, come, pack up their families and return to Kosovo", says the representative of the High Commissioner in charge of public relations. The UNHCR has neither the right nor the power to keep the refugees back. It can only assist them.

Faced with the "caravan of desire", the rational West can do nothing but adjust to this wish and try to to help them by providing them with information. In the past few days several radio stations in Macedonia have opened programs for the project called "The New Beginning" led by the Organization for Mass Information from Geneva which makes radio programs with practical information for refugees - describing the procedure for entering and leaving Macedonia, the situation in the region, cities and villages of Kosovo, searching for lost family members, etc. The program which will last for half an hour on Channel 77 will be broadcast every day at 16.00 hours by a radio station which is heard on the whole territory of Macedonia, and by another seven radio stations for the Albanian speaking population. The producer of the program will be the international press centre, and Media Action International will also be involved in the project.

Despite the tendency to return to Kosovo, official representatives of UNHCR believe that a certain number of people will have to spend the winter in Macedonia. Primarily this refers to the category of people who have absolutely nothing left in Kosovo, the ailing who cannot survive conditions without electricity, water and a roof above their heads, the Serbs and the Romanies, the number of whom is not registered by UNHCR because it is contrary to the rules of this organization. They believe in UNHCR that by October this year at least half of the total number of refugees will return home from Macedonia. The forecast is that the number of returnees will decline because activities for ensuring the minimum conditions for living are just starting in Kosovo, and because the first tide consists of families which are comparatively well-off, families who can shift for themselves, who have at least some kind of shelter there. According to the data of the High Commissioner, there are about 35 thousand more or less destroyed houses which means that if the low average of four members per family is taken into account there are 140 thousand people left without their homes. In the bigger part of towns and villages there are not even the bare conditions for living because the water and the electric power network are broken off, the roads and fields are scattered with land mines, there is not enough fuel for transportation, least of all for agriculture and provision of the basic foods. Therefore, as they say in UNHCR, the question will arise in the course of this summer how to pass the winter. That is the reason why the so-called "air-bridge" still operates from Macedonia, which carries refugees to the third countries. In the beginning of this week, for instance, while thousands of people are heading towards Kosovo, in just two days, 252 Kosovo Albanians have left to third countries. From the beginning of the crisis, in countries which have decided to receive Kosovo refugees, about 89 thousand people have left. What their destiny will be like depends on these countries, they say in UNHCR. There are indications that the USA will offer them permanent residence, while other countries still do not have an official stand.

In general, the alarm that the Kosovars would stay for ever in Macedonia which had arisen among Macedonian public and which was greatly fueled by the authorities especially for fear of uncertainty of the war and the possibility that in international agreements the Yugoslav party might squeeze through a provision that refugees could return only if they had papers, has so far proved to be unfounded. Strangely, and in any case shallow, the main question forced by reporters in refugee camps and at border crossings in the past few day was: Do you wish to return to Kosovo?

The methodical Westerners have even made a poll on this topic, which it seems could not but have one result - that the majority would say "yes". The International Organization for Migration made a poll in refugee camps in Macedonia with the question "When do you wish to return to Kosovo?" It covered 6,500 refugees. More than 40 per cent of them declared that they planned to return to their homes right away, paying no heed to danger. It is interesting that last week this percentage was a little over 10 per cent, but the increase can easily be explained by withdrawal of the Army of Yugoslavia from the province. As it is stated in the report on the conducted poll, among those who declared themselves in favour of "return as soon as possible", 50 per cent hope that they would use free transportation organised by IOM, although they had been informed that this would happen when safe conditions were created. Among those who decided to wait for a while longer, 65 per cent hope for organised transportation.

The reasons given were safety conditions, destroyed farms or enterprises, wish to go to third countries and lack of transportation: 42 per cent of pollees said they were concerned about safety, 17 per cent said that the reason for waiting was that everything they possessed had been destroyed and they had nowehere to return, 16 per cent wished to travel to a third country and 11 per cent declared that they had no means by which to return home.

As concerning Macedonian authorities, they incessantly insist that the refugees should return to Kosovo. Practically there is no statesman who has come to Macedonia who has not heard insisting on implementation of international agreements which resolved the crisis of Kosovo and in which it is written that the Kosovars will return home. The main arguments on which Macedonian authorities base such policy is that the exodus had enormous negative effect on Macedonian economy, that the ethnic composition of Macedonia would be cahnged if the refugees stayed, that sanitary conditions do not exist in the camps, and that in great summer heat they are possible sources of contageous diseases, especially because some of the camps are in the protection zone around the source which supplies the capital Skopje and its 600 thousand inhabitants with water. For the time being there are no specific solutions about where Kosovars who will stay in Macedonia will live during the winter. Ministry of city planning and construction in cooperation with international humanitarian organizations has made plans for a few projects on construction of barracks for refugees, but at the moment, this plan has been put away.

All things considered, it can be concluded that the exodus is fortunately heading towards the beginning of its end. What the actual end will be can only be guessed. There is certain optimism in the caravan going towards Kosovo. The international community has announced reconstruction of Kosovo. After all, there has been enough exodus.

AIM Skopje

Valentin Nesovski

Source: BalkanPeaceNetwork

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