Kosovo: Ogata condemns atrocities, appeals for access
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata on Monday called for the immediate cessation of hostilities in Kosovo, warning that fighting in the Stimlje area has once again forced people to flee into the hills and that children are reported to be dying in the cold.
"There are hundreds of people who have spent the past three nights in the woods in freezing weather. Most of them are women and children. My staff are trying to help them, but the only way to do this is for the two sides to stop fighting and allow these people to seek shelter," Ogata said.
Renewed fighting since Christmas Eve has forced more than 20,000 people to flee at least 23 villages in the municipalities of Decane, Podujevo, Stimlje, and Suva Reka. UNHCR staff report that the conflict area in Kosovo seems to be widening. Field workers in the Stimlje area on Monday could hear gunfire and artillery rounds coming from the surrounding villages. They met a group of displaced people who told them that two babies had died in the woods during the night.
"It is devastating that the current round of fighting is happening just when the presence of the Kosovo Verification Mission was clearly starting to make a difference. I was shocked to learn of the massacre at Racak and I condemn it in the strongest possible terms," Ogata said.
The cease fire called in October averted a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo. The tens of thousands of people who were living out in the open in the wooded hills at that time came down to seek warm shelter before winter.
"I was encouraged by that development, but now we are again seeing people in the hundreds encamped in the woods. A new upsurge of violence will undermine what we have accomplished to date," said the High Commissioner. She said there would be "dramatic consequences" for both Serbian and Albanian civilians in Kosovo, unless the fighting stops.
UNHCR has been leading aid convoys throughout Kosovo since the beginning of the crisis last year. A UNHCR team which tried to deliver food and blankets to Racak on Sunday, 17 January, was blocked by Serbian security forces from entering the village. The convoy unloaded its supplies at Stimlje, one kilometre from Racak, in the hope that the aid would reach the neediest people. By Sunday evening, however, most of the 2,000 residents of Racak had fled, heading for the woods and for the town of Stimlje. Aid workers in Stimlje on Sunday evening said there was a steady stream of displaced people arriving on foot, in horse-drawn carts and tractors. UNHCR workers reported that around 3,500 villagers had also left the nearby areas of Petrovo, Malopolje and Rance.