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UNHCR calls for immediate action to allow the return of the uprooted in Kosovo

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UNHCR calls for immediate action to allow the return of the uprooted in Kosovo

16 June 1998

Søren Jessen-Petersen, the United Nations Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, on Friday called for immediate measures to allow the safe return to their homes of more than 230,000 people uprooted by the conflict in Kosovo.

Jessen-Petersen issued the statement as he left Kosovo after a two-day visit there. He was then to proceed to Montenegro to meet Milo Djukanovic, President of Montenegro, and other senior officials. He earlier visited Belgrade and Pristina and on Thursday travelled to areas engulfed in recent violence in Kosovo.

People in the conflict zone told Jessen-Petersen they felt threatened without representatives of the world community in their midst. They said they were very concerned about possible further attacks and urged UNHCR to visit them on a regular basis.

"Obviously, adequate arrangements are urgently required in Kosovo that will reassure the people and encourage those uprooted from their homes that it is safe for them to return. Authorities must assume their responsibilities in establishing the necessary conditions for safe return. But clearly the displaced people lack confidence in the present circumstances. Without safe return, you leave tens of thousands of people out in the open fields and there will be a catastrophe when winter sets in," Jessen-Petersen said.

On Thursday at Kotrovic village, people displaced by last week's violence south of Kosovo's second largest town of Pec said they wanted to return to their homes as soon as possible and asked how UNHCR can help them.

"It is a major problem," Jessen-Petersen said. "We have seen the destruction, but if a way can be found to create conditions of safety and somehow mobilize a little bit of assistance so that they can rebuild a part of their destroyed houses, maybe they can start life again."

More than 170,000 of the 230,000 people forced from their homes are displaced within Kosovo, the remainder in Montenegro and Albania. Most of them are crammed into houses of villagers, but tens of thousands remain in the open fields and in the mountains, exposed to the summer heat and occasional rains. They have little food and no clean water. Children have been suffering from malnutrition and disease.

On Wednesday, Jessen-Petersen said at a news conference that only an immediate cease-fire followed by a political dialogue can avert a looming humanitarian disaster. He said authorities should send a clear and unequivocal message assuring the safety of those who wish to return and back this up with concrete action; and that those responsible for atrocities should be held accountable. He also called for stronger support to the humanitarian relief efforts.

During his visit to central Kosovo Thursday, Jessen-Petersen went to empty villages damaged by the six-month conflict in the Serb province. Junik and Malisevo were deserted except for the presence of police. In Orahovac, scene of heavy shelling in mid-July, he saw some shops had begun to reopen and a few people were out in the streets.

At Ade village just outside Pristina, villagers told him they had been prevented from harvesting their fields. The houses of two families remained occupied by police. UNHCR had escorted some 200 people who had requested to return to Ade early this month.

During the last month, UNHCR escorted two to three convoys per week, carrying supplies from various humanitarian agencies. Joint efforts by UNHCR and humanitarian agencies have reached many of the displaced, but the assistance requirements remain great.