Officials ponder ways to get food to homeless in Kosovo
May 13, 1999
(CNN) -- U.S. and NATO officials are exploring ways to get food to the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians who may be starving as they hide from Serb forces inside Kosovo.
The deteriorating condition of refugees now coming out of Kosovo's borders makes it clear that displaced people hiding in the hills and forests of Kosovo are running out of food.
Refugees arriving Thursday at Blace, Macedonia, told of severe food shortages among those ethnic Albanians remaining inside Kosovo. They also told of a heavy police presence and said that some Serb shopkeepers are refusing to sell food to ethnic Albanians.
"It is hard to believe, but we ate leaves and flowers and we fed our children with them," said one refugee man.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees believes there are many similar stories going unheard.
"There are tens of thousands in there who are probably going hungry," said Ron Redmond of the UNHCR.
Which is why NATO recently asked the U.S. Air Force to try an experiment -- dropping food packets from B-52 bombers and F-15Es flying at a high altitude -- safe from Yugoslav military ground fire.
Officials said they were only able to pack about 2,000 food rations per plane -- putting them in canisters which release them before they hit the ground.
NATO decided the idea was too costly and not practical for distributing food to so many people.
Pentagon officials said that a method used in Bosnia -- planes flying at low altitude and delivering food on pallets with parachutes -- is too risky for Kosovo.
"The question is: Could we get the food to the people in a way that wouldn't endanger the deliverers?" Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said at a briefing. "We have not figured out a way to do that."
Bacon added that "trying to get food to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people within Kosovo is a priority for NATO and certainly for the non-government organizations."
Various humanitarian groups have also considered chartering planes for food drops in Kosovo.
But even if they could win a guarantee from the Serbs that they would not fire on food delivery planes, a nutritional mission would not be easy.
"You have to get the aircraft to fly low enough so they can drop their cargo," said Nancy Lindborg of Mercy Corps International. "You have to know where you are dropping it -- where are the people you have to be concerned about -- and not exposing those on the ground to additional danger."
So far, only a few truckloads of food have gone in to Kosovo from Greece.
But relief officials say what's needed are tens of thousands of tons of food -- and quickly -- if thousands of children and old people are to avoid starvation in the coming weeks and months.
Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.
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