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Royal Geographic Society Lecture: "The Balkans Diaspora: Breaking the Cycle of Violence" by Dennis McNamara, UNHCR Special Envoy to the former Yugoslavia/UN Deputy Representative of the Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs in Kosovo (London)

Royal Geographic Society Lecture: "The Balkans Diaspora: Breaking the Cycle of Violence" by Dennis McNamara, UNHCR Special Envoy to the former Yugoslavia/UN Deputy Representative of the Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs in Kosovo (London)

9 November 1999

Since the start of this decade, the Balkans has been the scene of some of the largest and most brutal population displacement of recent times. During this time, five million people have been forced to flee for their lives, and tens of thousands have been killed. Only in Kosovo have we witnessed the almost instant reversal of this process, with the rapid return of over 800,000 refugees and displaced persons, In stark contrast, return has been painfully slow in other parts of the region. In all, some 2 million people remain displaced from their homes of origin (mainly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia), including up to 200,000 who have left Kosovo this year. This is by no means the largest refugee problem we currently face (although it is by far the biggest in Europe) but it has an impact well beyond its actual numbers. The new exodus from Kosovo has raised fundamental questions regarding the future stability of the province and particularly its relationship with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Croatian Serbs need to be able to return from Montenegro and Serbia, while the cross-border movement of Roma also has broader regional implications.

The Balkans diaspora - the uprooted victims of a decade of violence and "ethnic cleansing" (more aptly termed ethnic purging) in the former Yugoslavia - is the humanitarian consequence of deep-rooted political failure. This failure has meant that the cycle of violence has been allowed to continue unchecked for far too long. The Dayton Accords stopped the fighting, but those who led it have since used the agreement to consolidate the ethnic partition of their region. NATO bombing finally led to a Serb military withdrawal from Kosovo - as the war ended, refugees went back, but the underlying conflict is still not resolved. This is the latest cycle of violence and the new Balkans diaspora: Serbs and Roma who have fled revenge attacks - or a justified fear of them - from returning refugees and Kosovar fighters.

Kosovo provides the most current example of population instability in the Balkans, which in turn has regional political implications. When the NATO air campaign began on 24 March, over 260,000 Albanians had been already driven out of their homes within Kosovo and another 200,000 were refugees abroad. Within four weeks, more than half a million more people were forced to flee or were deported by train to neighbouring countries. By June that figure had risen to some 900,000.

Their return was equally dramatic. Three weeks after the arrival of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) in Kosovo on 12 June, half a million of these refugees had returned; at its peak, nearly 50,000 people a day were coming back, even before landmines were cleared and the most basic relief supplies were available.

When we entered Kosovo on 13 June with a humanitarian convoy of 50 vehicles in the middle of NATO's massive columns, we were surprised to find families under plastic covers on tractors and trailers leaving Kosovo: the same images we had all seen for weeks of Albanians fleeing Serb attacks in Kosovo. But this time it was Serb families fleeing anticipated Albanian revenge. They were not wrong. The revenge still continues, and up to 200,000 more Kosovars have effectively become refugees. Today, Pristina probably houses less than 500 Serbs, down from 20,000 just a few months ago.

Tragically, although much reduced since the first weeks of KFOR's deployment, the vengeance against the non-Albanian population in Kosovo continues. In August I went on a 3 hour night patrol through the Kosovo capital Pristina with the Royal Irish Battalion. It was an impressive performance of community policing: the soldiers knew where the frightened Serbs were living and reassured them by their presence on the ground. We visited one apartment where a grenade had been thrown through the window (after a shotgun blast) just minutes beforehand. The Serb occupant said he had been expecting an attack: ironically he had been employed by the NATO, KFOR, to repair doors and windows damaged by similar attacks on Serbs in the neighbourhood. We also saw the remnants of an apartment which had 2-3 kilogrammes of explosive attached to its door when it was opened by the occupant, a young Serb male who was killed instantly by the blast, and whose dried blood was still visible on the shattered walls inside. In a building in the same area, an 80 year old Serb woman, who UNHCR had been planning to move to Belgrade to join her family members, was bludgeoned to death in her bath a few weeks earlier.

The intensity of this vengeance reflects its deep roots, as well as its rawness. The Kosovo conflict systematically targeted individual homes and families, rather than infrastructure or military installations. Tens of thousands of Albanian houses and apartments were ransacked, looted and often burnt by Serb militia or paramilitaries. It was painstaking and obsessive: family photographs destroyed; personal effects and clothes stolen; even basic household fittings ripped out and removed. In other areas family members were killed and houses flattened: around 50,000 of them beyond repair.

Those Serbs and Roma who took part in the atrocities should clearly be held accountable. But others - even those who were silent witnesses - should not become the new refugees of the Balkans on the basis of deemed collective responsibility.

Many visitors to Kosovo today remark on how surprisingly "normal" everything appears to be: the roads, empty when we entered on 13 June, are full of traffic; villages previously purged of all inhabitants now have bustling markets; the same tractor-trailers that took refugees to an uncertain exile in Albania and Macedonia are being used to harvest fields and carry bricks and tiles to repair houses; cafés in Pristina are full; and new restaurants are opening daily. Apart from the British troops patrolling the streets, there are few signs, in Pristina at least, of the atrocities and cruelty which engulfed Kosovo just a few months ago.

But these images of normality, the signs of a vigorous new beginning, mask formidable difficulties which make Kosovo one of the biggest challenges the United Nations has faced, with its mandate to assume the interim administration of the province. The authorising Security Council resolution recognises the sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as well as "substantial autonomy" for Kosovo and the need to establish "democratic self-governing institutions". This makes for a complex and difficult mix of objectives, the subject of regular debate in the UN Security Council.

The refugees came back to complete administrative collapse - no government, no police force, no civil administration structures, no legal or judicial system, a lack of expertise to operate the water or electricity systems, etc. Kosovo was not only post-conflict, but post-government: with empty and ransacked ministries and a parallel administration which had been almost completely displaced. The most immediate problem was the vacuum in law and order, which KFOR troops did their best to address while efforts began to establish a new police force. Other forces which were not always representative or legitimate quickly moved into the vacuum left by the departing Serb civil servants and the general administrative collapse. In addition to attacks against minorities, the presence of organised crime became quickly apparent.

The international force did what it could under the circumstances, but there were serious limits as to what could be achieved. KFOR effectively took over the role of security and policing functions throughout the province. This was absolutely necessary, and undoubtedly saved lives. But soldiers are not trained to be, and do not want to be, policemen. Arrests were made, but proper investigations and prosecutions were (and are still) also urgently needed. In mid-July, up to six Kosovars were being killed each day - at the same time, new alleged mass grave sites were being uncovered every week. The absence of any national or international police force during this period was critical.

Some four months later, the problem continues, albeit to a lesser extent. Even with the UN Civilian Police now at a strength of some 1,800 out of a hoped - for 4,600, comprehensive and effective law and order cannot be imposed by foreigners. Qualified nationals need to be identified and supported from the outset: international support as well as community backing is essential to establish a credible local police force, which is just starting to be re-built.

Other international agencies, including UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the OSCE, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have also tried to do what they can to provide basic protection to the remaining minority population. Responsibility for minorities within the UN Mission in Kosovo falls under the Humanitarian Affairs pillar, and early on we set up a Task Force to bring together all of the international organisations, with KFOR, to pool resources on this problem.

Through the work of the Task Force, threatened and vulnerable minority groups have been identified and measures to improve their protection and to provide them with assistance have been agreed. Recently, bus lines escorted by KFOR between isolated communities in enclaves were set up to promote freedom of movement, and to allow people to visit markets, doctors and relatives (for many of those using these buses it is the first time they have left their village since June). Satellite telephones have also been provided in isolated minority enclaves to allow people to make contact with their relatives. Special systems to distribute food and other aid, as well as to provide medical care, have been put in place. As a last resort, where people are in life-threatening danger or where they require urgent medical treatment, UNHCR (and sometimes ICRC) assists in transferring them to join relatives in Serbia or Montenegro. In this, we are confronted once more with the dilemma we faced during the war in Bosnia - whether to be seen to assist "ethnic cleansing" by helping persecuted groups to leave, or to refuse this alleged complicity, and leave groups at risk.

"Anyone who thinks that the violence will end once the last Serb has been driven out of Kosovo is living an illusion" warned Veton Surroi, publisher of the influential Albanian newspaper Koha Ditore, last month. "The violence will simply be redirected against other Albanians.... From having been the victims of Europe's worst end-of-century persecution, we are ourselves becoming persecutors and have allowed the spectre of fascism to reappear ... I know the excuses - that we have been through a barbaric war in which Serbs committed the most heinous crimes; that the intensity of violence has generated a desire for vengeance. This, however, is no justification."

The virulence of the response to Surroi's plea for pluralism demonstrated how the conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbs is quickly being supplanted by a parallel struggle between the forces of tolerance and intolerance within the ethnic Albanian community. In an article in the official newsagency of the self-proclaimed interim government, Surroi and his editor-in-chief were described as "pro-Serb vampires". Accusing them of collaboration, the article said that "people like them ... .should realise that one day, they too may be the targets of some personal vendetta ... .both ... .should not be left unpunished for their criminal acts, since their idiosyncrasies deliver water to arch-criminal Milosevic's mill". Despite UNMIK's efforts, this attack drew only muted criticism from local leaders.

A young ethnic Albanian interviewed recently by the Washington Post reflected the current mood when she said: " When the Serbs oppressed us, we asked "Where are the decent Serbs, why don't they speak out?" Now we are afraid to speak out. Things are going wrong, and there's a frightening silence".

What can and should be done, in this rather gloomy scenario, to attempt to reduce the cycle of violence and the related refugee cycle?

First, the absolute need for early and substantial investment in the peace following such conflicts has to be understood and accepted, if the lawlessness and violence which characterised them are not to continue, albeit in different forms (and with different victims). Kosovo was a highly expensive and hugely resourced war. The post-war military investment of 45,000 NATO-led troops is also massive. While war may be undertaken to prevent further violence, it is also an imperfect and blunt instrument. Even when it is used as a last resort to prevent greater atrocities, its brutalising effects and the inevitable proliferation of weapons which it promotes are not always easily reversible.

Civil society faces a massive challenge in the immediate aftermath of such a war. Regrettably, as in Bosnia, the post-war investment in the civilian process in Kosovo has been minimal by comparison with the war effort. UNMIK continues to struggle to get a few thousand international police; it has a limited budget to meet the costs of administering the province, or to properly repair basic infrastructure, such as power and water, and lacks the essential staff to run everything from education to customs collection. A major investment in the human and financial resources to establish a basic system of law and order and governance is needed.

Many of these elements are also basic prerequisites to support effective elections, as we have seen elsewhere. In Cambodia, the UN battled to conduct a "free and fair" election, but there was little backing to attempt to put in place an independent and functioning judicial or legal process. The result was predictable and long-term: those who lost the UN-supervised elections continued in power, overthrew the elected representatives and drained the country's meagre resources.

Talk of peace, reconstruction and stability in the Balkans is currently very popular. The aim of the Southern Europe Stability Pact, which was established on June 10 in Cologne under the European Union's German Presidency and later endorsed by the Sarajevo Summit, is to strengthen countries "in their efforts to foster peace, democracy, respect for human rights and economic prosperity, in order to achieve stability in the whole region". In terms of regional refugee issues, and the causes of population displacement, the framework can only be welcomed. But it will require political and economic support over some years - a real peace investment - if it is to have the desired positive impact.

Accountability for violence - or the serious threat of it - to both national and international bodies, is an important aspect of any post-conflict stabilising effort. For this, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia needs continued backing and resources to maximise its impact in the region. I believe there should also be serious consideration to the establishment of parallel national structures, supported if necessary by international investigators and prosecutors, (and perhaps even judges) to pursue the numerous perpetrators of atrocities who do not come within ICTY's purview (UNMIK is currently looking at this possibility). The effectiveness of the international tribunals has always been predicated on the basis of supportive national processes, which do not exist today in the Balkans.

Formal and structured peace and reconciliation efforts are also needed. In my view, substantial progress in this area would require a major, internationally-backed initiative to promote peace, co-existence, tolerance and justice - leading to reconciliation - in the Balkans. This is a multi-dimensional, complex and difficult undertaking at the international, regional and national levels. It requires funding, expertise, and active local support. While it may be too soon to talk directly of reconciliation in Kosovo, the first steps along that path have to begin. And it is certainly not too early elsewhere in the Balkans. Regional and national peace and reconciliation mechanisms to foster dialogue between different groups are a key component of this process, difficult and time-consuming as they are bound to be.

Given the reality of the current environment, there is little wonder that children are also involved in ethnic violence. If the cycle of violence is to be broken, the young future leaders must be persuaded to see beyond the hatred of the past in order to go forward. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, with over 50% of its population under 20 years of age. An international programme to expose some of its future leadership to multiculturalism and pluralism in other regions of the world could only be helpful.

Attempting to stabilise and rebuild traumatised and upended societies after conflicts such as in Kosovo is a daunting task. Humanitarian relief after war is a necessary but clearly inadequate response. Rebuilding involves far more than reconstruction of homes and infrastructure. Equally needed from an early stage are police, judges, administrators, and the resources and structures to control the extremists. When school-age children are allowed to harass and assault elderly citizens because of their ethnic background, there is something deeply wrong in the community. And it cannot be overcome without a carefully balanced and supported response to re-establish the fundamental checks and balances of a civil society.

Could more have been done to avoid the present situation?

The atrocities in Bosnia, Croatia and now Kosovo are just a series of examples of major human rights violations which have led to humanitarian disasters. It is clearly possible for concerted international and regional action to be taken at an early stage to prevent these violations resulting in such crises. If human rights are to be a " global imperative", their support demands a renewed effort by the international community to prevent the proliferation of widespread and often predictable abuse.

Warnings about the deteriorating human rights situation in Kosovo started in the late eighties, yet there was no serious attention to it in peace negotiations conducted elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia. There must be an open question as to whether this situation could have been to some extent pre-empted or at least its worst effects avoided, had this attention been given. Regrettably, early-warning continues not to be translated into early international action in such situations.

There is also a need for greater pressure on the Kosovar leadership to undertake more efforts within the community to prevent the continuing violence against minorities. Politically, this remains highly charged, with extremists attempting to set the agenda with an eye on elections and future power. There is clearly a limit to what outside action can achieve. Nonetheless, linkages to economic and political support need to be spelt out by those who are listened to: Kosovar leaders must understand that the suffering of the Albanian people can be no justification for renewed ethnic purging, that the key to a stable society is tolerance and non-discrimination, and that failure to speak out and to act can only lessen future international support.

Kosovo, along with Bosnia and Croatia, is managing a triple transition: from war to peace, from subjugation to " substantial autonomy ", from socialism to democracy. None of these can be achieved or maintained on the back of continuing violence and new population displacements. The ultimate safeguards are the in-built constraints and responses of a functioning civil society, internationally backed and nationally accepted. They do not exist today in Kosovo, nor in much of the rest of the region. That is the immediate challenge I believe we have to respond to, if we are serious about ending the cycle of violence and the continuing Balkans diaspora.