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Top UNHCR official visits the Balkans

News Stories, 9 April 2003

© UNHCR/M.Ellena
Ms. Wyrsch talks with Zoran Stevanovic, Serb returnee in the village of Sredska, Prizren municipality.

SARAJEVO, April 9 (UNHCR) UN refugee agency Deputy High Commissioner Mary Ann Wyrsch is visiting the Balkans a region that is still trying to come to terms with Europe's largest wave of displacement since World War II. UNHCR's number two official has met with local officials across the region, getting a first-hand impression of one of the agency's largest operations ever.

Speaking in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo, Wyrsch said last week she was heartened by the amount of progress made since the Dayton peace agreement put an end to the war in Bosnia more than seven years ago. But she warned that the world should not walk away from the Balkans or risk squandering some of the achievements.

Nearly half of the two million people uprooted by the war have gone back to their homes in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the guns fell silent. Hundreds of thousands have returned to areas controlled by their former enemies, in at least a partial reversal of the policy of "ethnic cleansing" that became a grim feature of the Balkan wars. Wyrsch praised the courage of those going back and said they deserved continued support.

"I am afraid that unless additional assistance is made available, the impressive momentum may be stalled," she said.

During the Bosnia leg of her trip, Wyrsch visited some of the most war-scarred communities of the country, including the eastern town of Srebrenica the scene of the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

In Kosovo, the Deputy High Commissioner met with minority Serbs and Roma who have been slowly trickling back to their homes as stability gradually takes hold. She assured them that UNHCR would continue to support minority returns despite many difficulties.

"The path towards tolerance and reconciliation is long and difficult, indeed, a painful process, but we are highly committed to it," she said.

In Kosovo's main city, Pristina, Wyrsch also met with President Ibrahim Rugova and the head of the UN Mission there, Michael Steiner.

During her week-long trip, the Deputy High Commissioner also visited Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where she met with government officials and displaced communities. Later this week, she is scheduled to visit Croatia before returning to Geneva.




UNHCR country pages

Serbia: Europe's forgotten refugees

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These long-term refugees live under appalling conditions in dingy apartments and overcrowded collective centres – the nearest thing to refugee camps in modern Europe.

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Angelina Jolie in Bosnia

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Jolie was clearly moved by the spirit - and the ordeal - of the people she met and she pledged to highlight their case. Most of the people she talked to have been living in exile since the end of the 1992-1995 conflict. Jolie visited collective centres in the towns of Gorazde and Rogatica, where the inhabitants lack basic services such as running water.

The actress spent some time with a group of women who were raped or tortured during the war. Their tales left a deep impression on her. She also met a family of refugee returnees who were still waiting to move into their village home near the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad.

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As of early December 2003, some 62,000 displaced Chechens were living in temporary settlements or in private accommodation. Those living in settlements face constant threats of eviction, often by owners who wish to use their buildings again.

Another 7,900 displaced Chechens live in tents in three remaining camps – Satsita, Sputnik, and Bart.

The authorities have repeatedly called for the closure of tent camps and the return of the displaced people to Chechnya. Three camps have been closed in the past year – Iman camp at Aki Yurt, "Bella" or B camp, and "Alina" or A camp. Chechens from the latter two camps who did not wish to go home were allowed to move to Satsita camp or other existing temporary settlements in Ingushetia.

Ingushetia: Internally Displaced Chechens

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