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Severe cold hits refugees and returnees in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Severe cold hits refugees and returnees in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Local authorities and the UN refugee agency have been struggling to provide refugees with the basics - water and sanitation - as snow and plummeting temperatures bring much of Bosnia and Herzegovina to a grinding halt.
16 February 2005
Snow and arctic temperatures caused a water crisis for the 300 residents of Gorincani Refugee Reception Centre in February 2005.

SARAJEVO, Feb 16 (UNHCR) - Harsh winter weather has been creating havoc across Bosnia and Herzegovina, oblivious of any lingering ethnic divisions or distinctions between refugees, returnees and people who never moved anywhere. The poorest, and least well-provisioned, have been suffering - whoever they are.

Many towns are paralyzed by the snow, with their electricity and water supplies cut. Wolves are reported to be approaching villages in search of food, and several people have frozen to death. In the capital, Sarajevo, the streets are covered in snow and the schools have closed until the weather conditions improve.

The unusually severe cold spell has also affected the population of Gorincani Refugee Reception Centre. The centre, which is managed by the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees with UNHCR funding, is located on the outskirts of Bosanski Petrovac, some 55 km south of the town of Bihac, which experienced its heaviest snowfall in about 20 years. The Gorincani centre provides accommodation for more than 300 refugees, mostly from Kosovo.

In addition to the heavy snowfalls over the past two weeks, the temperature in Bosanski Petrovac has plummeted as low as -27 degrees Celsius. As a result water pipes have frozen solid, leaving many local residents without a water supply. The Gorincani centre's pipes also froze, depriving all 12 accommodation blocks of water.

As well as having to overcome the logistical problem of providing the centre's residents with sufficient water for drinking and cooking, UNHCR staff were concerned that, with all the toilets out of action for several days, deteriorating sanitary conditions could lead to widespread health-related problems. To make matters worse, it turned out the bitter weather also made it impossible to bring the old latrine system housed in containers back into commission.

The municipal authorities asked UNHCR to intervene on 7 February. A water cistern was brought to the centre and started pumping water into the reservoir. However, it was then discovered that the extremely low temperatures had frozen the entire system, severely impeding the refilling of the reservoir and onward distribution.

Eventually, after the pipes in one of the main accommodation blocks were heated with a system of electric wiring for an entire day, drinking water from the reservoir began to flow out of one of the taps, which was from then on checked regularly by the centre's manager and residents.

While far from ideal, the residents of the other 11 blocks could at least trek through the snow and freezing temperatures to the central tap to fill plastic bottles, buckets or any other suitable containers.

The centre's management made continuous efforts to bring the situation back to normal. Eventually, their labours started to bear fruit, and a couple of days later water supply was restored to six accommodation blocks. The residents of the other blocks had to continue fetching water from the main tap and haul it back to their own block. Five days after the crisis first began, they could still be seen trudging their way to and from the outlying buildings several times a day, but within a week all accommodation blocks had their water supply restored.

Other groups of refugees and returnees were facing similar problems elsewhere in the country.

Fortunately, in November 2004, UNHCR had used a 100,000 Euro contribution from the German government to procure some 1,000 beds and 800 stoves. These items, together with UNHCR's remaining stocks, were distributed to the most vulnerable returnees before the onset of the winter. Given the fiendish cold spell of the past couple of weeks - and more bad weather forecast - that donation has proved even more vital than originally imagined.

In mid-January, UNHCR's Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Udo Janz, visited one of the groups that had benefited from this donation together with the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, Arne Freiherr von Kittlitz und Ottendorf.

German Ambassador Arne Freiherr von Kittlitz und Ottendorf and UNHCR Representative Udo Janz (right) meet the grateful recipients of a stove in Sokolac in January 2005.

Several appreciative returnees in a village in Sokolac municipality, on the Romania plateau some 50 km north-east of Sarajevo, showed them how the combined cooking and heating stove had become the central focal point in their homes.

"This timely intervention would have been impossible without the understanding and extra funding by the German Government," said Janz. "We hope it will be repeated next year, because the winters here can be very severe indeed, and life in these conditions without a secure form of heating doesn't bear thinking about."

Just a week after this visit, the village was cut off by the massive snowfall that blanketed the country. The latest reports from the Gorincani reception centre say that the water supply is now functioning as normal, but the weather has taken a further turn for the worse, and heavy snow is falling once again.