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  •   Refugees Willing To Put Off Return

    By John Ward Anderson
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Friday, June 11, 1999; Page A24

    KUKES, Albania, June 10 – The sun is blistering outside and the tents are sweltering inside. The food is so-so, the water is scarce, the air is stale and smelly. There is nothing to do – no jobs, no television, no school, no phone. There is no privacy. And worst of all, home is tantalizingly close – barely nine miles away.

    But ethnic Albanian refugees crammed in the camps outside this border town said today they would resist the temptation to sprint back to Kosovo after Wednesday's peace announcement because of what they might find there: razed villages, land mines and unexploded bombs, and – if they move too quickly – possibly even Yugoslav or Serbian forces that have not yet withdrawn.

    "We have been waiting for this agreement night and day, but we are afraid, because you can't trust [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic, and we don't think he'll turn back all of his forces," said Sali Ahmeti, 52, a carpenter who lives with 26 relatives in a tent city operated by the United Arab Emirates. "We're very happy about the peace, but we'll save our celebrations for when we get home. And we won't return until NATO gives the order."

    That widely shared sentiment here is good news for relief workers, who say there is an urgent need to focus their resources on an immediate crisis: getting help to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians inside Kosovo who have been forced from their homes by Serbian forces and have been living in dire conditions for months.


    "Maybe there are some booby traps in our home, maybe the Serbs haven't really left. We'll wait for orders from NATO."

    – Zenel Gafleshi, refugee in Kukes, Albania


    "There was no harvest this year, only one-third of the land was cultivated, people are scavenging for food in houses, and 650,000 people might be displaced, and they haven't had any food in a long time," said U.N. World Food Program spokeswoman Anna Di Lellio.

    "They have no cooking facilities, no shops, no stores," she said. "They have been denied food by the Serbs and – except for old people – they are afraid to go out and look for food. They are our main concern at this point."

    U.N. maps show small areas within Kosovo where relief experts believe that Serbian security forces and military operations have herded tens of thousands of homeless people.

    Officials with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees have been perplexed for weeks about the whereabouts of as many as 40,000 people who were reported by refugees to be on the road near the western Kosovo town of Djakovica and headed for the border – but never showed up in Albania. One map might offer a clue. It shows a small area near Djakovica that could have as many as 120,000 displaced people.

    Anecdotal evidence of the hardships inside Kosovo have been emerging for months.

    Last weekend, relief workers were stunned when a group of exhausted and haggard men arrived in Kukes wearing overcoats, even though temperatures during the day were soaring. The men explained that they had been hiding in the mountains – moving from town to town as Serbian forces closed in on them – since March 25, the day after NATO bombing began.

    Recently, groups of male former prisoners arriving in Kukes were emaciated, and relief workers have reported increasing signs of malnutrition among young women arrivals.

    Rushing food and other aid to the people inside Kosovo also will lay the foundation for relief operations to assist the estimated 840,000 Kosovo refugees who have fled the province and are expected to return home eventually, relief workers said.

    The U.N. refugee agency expects to set up seven offices in the small province. The organization's food program expects to have warehouses and distribution centers in 29 municipalities with enough food to feed every refugee for at least a year.

    NATO and U.N. officials do not know how quickly refugees will return or when it will be safe for them to do so. NATO expects the "insertion [of troops] and stabilization" of Kosovo to take a "minimum" of four weeks, according to a U.N. report. Other U.N. reports say that as many as 150,000 refugees could return "spontaneously" in the first month after the end of the war.

    U.N. officials said they could not prohibit refugees from returning home, but that they were launching an aggressive campaign to explain the risks and hardships that await those who go too soon.

    The principal aim is "to minimize, if you like, the mad rush back" by persuading refugees to take part in a controlled, organized repatriation, under which about 400,000 people would likely return in the first three months, said Rupert Colville, a U.N. spokesman. "Too soon, too large numbers would be complete chaos . . . but if they chose to go back, we're going to help them."

    Refugees said they pined for home, but said that given the circumstances, they were not going to rush.

    "Maybe there are some booby traps in our home, maybe the Serbs haven't really left," said Zenel Gafleshi, who lives with 22 relatives in a small cluster of covered tractors. "We'll wait for orders from NATO. We trust them."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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