Kosovo: terrified Serbs fleeing

Briefing Notes, 24 August 1999

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 24 August 1999, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR today evacuated 28 vulnerable elderly Serbs from Prizren to Serbia where they will be reunited with their families. Virtually all of the 28 have received verbal threats. They were terrified and asked to be taken out.

The latest Federal Yugoslav Government figures indicate that Kosovo is emptying out of its Serbs and only three municipalities in the extreme north of Kosovo have sizeable Serb populations. The Yugoslav government says an estimated 195,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians have now arrived in Serbia and Montenegro up from 180,000 just two or three weeks ago. Even though UNHCR cannot vouch for the accuracy of the figure, it certainly implies that Kosovo's Serbian population is dwindling even further.

Meanwhile UNHCR's shelter rehabilitation programme in Kosovo is getting into full swing, with 5,800 basic shelter kits distributed so far. These kits are designed to provide enough material to allow homeowners to temporarily weatherproof one room in their house before winter. The kits contain reinforced, heavy-duty plastic sheeting for roof repairs, as well as translucent plastic to cover broken windows. The kits also include timber, plywood, nails, staples, tape and tools. Since mid-June, UNHCR has delivered more than 750 truckloads of aid to Kosovo, much of it shelter material.

These materials are not meant to provide total reconstruction of a home. They are not meant as a permanent solution, but only as a temporary measure to get people through this first difficult winter. Our distribution partners, however, are reporting that many Kosovars have very high expectations, assuming that UNHCR is going to provide enough material to totally rebuild their homes. We've even heard of some cases where homeowners have turned down shelter kits, fearing they would be ineligible should a more substantial rebuilding package come later.

We want to stress to everyone that these kits may be the only help they receive before the onset of winter and they should make the best possible use of the materials in fixing one warm and weatherproof room. UNHCR is not a reconstruction agency we do emergency relief , assistance and some rehabilitation to ensure that refugee returns are sustainable. Reconstruction and long-term development are done by others.

UNHCR is handling only a third or less of the total provision of shelter kits. We're providing 16,000 basic shelter kits and another 4,400 roofing kits which are being distributed according to several criteria. Other organisations are also supplying shelter, including the European Community Humanitarian Office which is providing 20,000 basic kits, while the US is contributing 19,300. In all, the kits will benefit an estimated 387,000 people. That should be enough for the estimated population living in what we call Category 3 and 4 housing damage ranging from 20 to 60 percent.