FYROM: first return to ethnic Albanian area
Around 300 ethnic Macedonian internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the FYROM village of Brnjaci went home today in the first government-organized return to an area largely populated by ethnic Albanians. The Brnjaci residents were taken by bus from collective centres in nearby Skopje, where they had been staying for the last three months, for the 20-minute trip to their village. Brnjaci is adjacent to the town of Aracinovo, where up to 10,000 ethnic Albanians had earlier gone back. Around 70 residents returned to Brnjaci earlier.
UNHCR believes the safe return of displaced ethnic groups in regions where they are in the minority is crucial to the peace process in the country after a six-month conflict. Early this month, UNHCR organized a bus shuttle to enable the Brnjaci residents to visit their homes, which showed little damage from the fighting. On Sunday, the government announced it was time for the IDPs to return to Brnjaci, saying students returning to schools will use the collective centres, with UNHCR support.
The government has also announced plans for the return of displaced ethnic Macedonians to some villages in the Tetovo region, 60 km north-west of Skopje. A secure environment in many areas is yet to be established.
The rate of refugee returns from Kosovo has dropped significantly to a few hundred in recent days. Uncertainty over security is one explanation for the drop. FYROM security forces continue to maintain checkpoints in a number of villages, preventing free movement. In a surge of returns that followed a Parliament vote to consider minority rights early this month, around 12,000 refugees went back from Kosovo at the rate of up to 2,000 per day for several days. Since July, more than 52,500 refugees have gone back to FYROM; another 29,000 remain in Kosovo. The [former Yugoslav Republic of] Macedonian Red Cross says it has registered 76,000 IDPs in the country. However, it is revalidating its list as some areas normalize. UNHCR has warned against returns to areas regarded as extremely volatile and has called for an international arrangement that will replace NATO after its arms collection mission to prevent a looming security vacuum.