U.N. wants 2 weeks before Kosovar refugees return
June 18, 1999
GENEVA -- The United Nations plans to help Kosovo refugees return to their homes in two weeks, but thousands haven't been willing to wait, despite the risks of land mines, remaining Serb militants and water and food scarcities.
The U.N. refugee agency is not preventing the Kosovars from leaving camps in neighboring countries, and is even permitting them to take food, water and tents with them, said Soren Jessen-Petersen, assistant U.N. high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), on Friday.
Of the estimated 750,000 refugees, at least 50,000 have returned from neighboring Balkan states over the past three days. On Thursday alone, 14,500 departed Albania and 3,000 left Macedonia.
As ethnic Albanians who found sanctuary outside of Kosovo poured back into their home province, there were bottlenecks at border stations and traffic jams along mountain roads.
After touring Kosovo, a province of Serbia wracked by months of civil bloodshed and NATO bombs, Jessen-Petersen said there were "significantly fewer" displaced Kosovars in hiding than the 600,000 estimated by NATO during its airstrikes.
Jessen-Petersen said he worried about the "tractor people," refugees who fled rural areas on tractors and now want to return.
"Those are the people that go straight to the villages, and that's where the mines are," he said, referring to explosives buried by Serb forces.
Officials of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping mission said Thursday that at least four returning refugees had died from mine blasts. The UNHCR has called in seven demining teams from Bosnia to begin demarcation of possible mine fields.
Jessen-Petersen predicted that despite U.N. entreaties, most refugee camps would be empty by the end of next week. Remaining refugees, many living in temporary shelters or with relatives, will be able to return by bus or airplane trips organized by UNHCR.
In Blace, Macedonia, more refugees streamed across the border, some in buses provided by the Macedonian government. For them, the desire to return home after weeks or months of exile in cramped shanty towns far outweighed the risks.
"I'm very grateful for all the help I've had at this camp," said one woman. "The tents have kept out the rain, and the food has kept us from starving. But now it's the time for us to go home."
Refugee workers caution the refugees against hasty returns, but say they have no choice but to let them leave.
"They have family who are over in Kosovo who call them, and some are encouraging them to go," said Ed Joseph of Catholic Relief Services. "So it's quite understandable that people would want to go and get up and leave a hot, dusty, muddy airstrip and go home."
Despite the exodus, most refugees in Macedonia are taking the advice of NATO and the United Nations and have remained in camps near the Kosovo border.
Jessen-Petersen said the UNHCR was worried about the flight of Serb inhabitants from Kosovo, and added there were many Serb residents who helped other ethnic groups during the war.
About 800 Serb civilians arrived in the Montenegrin border town of Rozaje Thursday. The UNHCR said 19,000 Serb civilians had left Kosovo since Yugoslavia signed a peace agreement with NATO on June 9.
"We owe it to those countries, to the people who opened their homes and their borders, not to turn our back on them," Jessen-Petersen said.
Correspondent Matthew Chance and Reuters contributed to this report.
KFOR asserts authority in Kosovo
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