UNHCR and other agencies resume aid programme in Kosovo
UNHCR led a multi-agency convoy to Kosovo on Sunday at the start of a massive humanitarian relief programme in the Serbian province for an estimated 1.5 million people forced from their homes.
The 50-vehicle convoy carrying 250 tons of relief aid as well as U.N. and NGO staff to be deployed in Kosovo left Skopje in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Sunday morning for the 60-kilometre trip to the Kosovo capital, Pristina, where it is expected in the afternoon.
"This is an auspicious day. We hope this will lead to the end of a terrible nightmare and the healing of wounds," said High Commissioner Sadako Ogata. "The challenges facing us are enormous and to meet them we need the full support of all involved."
A 30-member UNHCR team, led by Special Envoy Dennis McNamara, proceeded to Kosovo 12 hours following the arrival in Pristina of the initial international security contingent. The UNHCR team will coordinate distribution of relief aid, including urgently needed supplies from the World Food Programme and UNICEF, and will work initially with NGOs which previously operated in the Serbian province.
The first UNHCR-led convoy to Kosovo in nearly three months carried aid consisting of Humanitarian Daily Rations, or Meals Ready to Eat, wheat flour, blankets, bottled water, jerry cans, hygienic kits, tents and plastic sheeting.
UNHCR has drawn up a return plan which initially will focus on urgent assistance to an estimated 500,000 displaced people believed to be in the municipalities of Glogovac, Klina, Obilic, Orahovac, Podujevo, Srbica, Suva Reka and Vucitrn which had been engulfed in fighting since December. Internally displaced people are expected immediately to begin moving back to their home villages in these areas.
In the first week of operations, UNHCR plans to reopen its main office in Pristina, which it left on March 23 on the eve of the NATO strike against Yugoslavia. As the security situation permits, satellite offices will be established in Urosevac, Prizren, Djakovica, Gnjilane, Pec and Kosovska Mitrovica. Warehouses will be opened in these places to enable regular short runs to distribution points.
UNHCR has urged refugees in the neighbouring asylum countries not to rush to Kosovo until their security can be assured. An information campaign, using leaflets and radio broadcasts, about the danger of land mines, unexploded ordnance and booby traps has been going on in the camps and in areas where refugees are living with host families. Experts on mine clearance from the U.N. and non-governmental groups are among those who are returning to Kosovo.
There are more than 780,000 refugees and displaced people in the region, including around 70,000 in Montenegro, 245,000 in the FYR of Macedonia, 444,000 in Albania and 21,700 in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Although assistance will continue in the asylum countries through the winter, UNHCR believes that around 500,000 refugees are likely to return within the next three to four months - the first groups heading back to their homes in villages and municipalities along the Kosovo border with the FYR of Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. UNHCR will set up relief centres, or "pit stops," along the route back as its offices get organized and mobile teams are fielded in all the affected municipalities.
It is expected that at least 50 percent of the returnees will need transport assistance, while the others are likely to repatriate spontaneously in their tractor-wagons and cars. UNHCR believes that within the next three weeks, if security conditions are assured, large numbers of people will begin going back from the asylum countries.
To keep the refugees informed, UNHCR will dispatch staff to assess security and other conditions in Kosovo and send information for dissemination in the camps and to refugees staying with host families.
UNHCR will also pay close attention to other ethnic groups living in Kosovo, including the remaining Serbs. UNHCR believes that the right of the civilian Kosovo Serbs right to remain in their home areas must be safeguarded, as the Kosovars return.