Balkan war refugees remain in limbo

” We all expected something to happen after (Slobodan) Milosevic left. Well, something has happened. Electricity prices have shot up and the children’s allowances have been slashed,» a refugee in southern Serbia told visiting UN refugee agency officials last year. The situation is not all that different today as the tragedy of conflict is being perpetuated by the misfortune of hundreds of thousands of refugees, who remain stateless and homeless, and the hardships faced by those trying to make a living amid the ruins of war. «People can go to the moon easily these days,» another refugee told officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) during a visit to Kosovo. «But in the Balkans, we can’t even go the few miles back to our homes.» As governments in the region have launched a bid along with European and international aid agencies to rebuild their nations, the large numbers of refugees who remain scattered in camps across the Balkans is a cruel reminder of the difficulty of such a task. According to UNHCR’s 2002 Global Appeal program, the agency will need over $100 million for its programs in Southeastern Europe this year, to sustain its support for existing refugees while aiding their repatriation. The bulk of the money, approximately $53 million, will be injected into agency programs in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), host to the largest number of uprooted people in Europe, estimated at over 700,000. UNHCR records show that, as of January 2002, as many as 389,000 refugees were situated in Serbia and Montenegro, while the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) stood at 230,000. In the province of Kosovo the refugee agency has identified 20,000 refugees from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), with 10,000 registered as IDPs. Although the agency reports a gradual return of refugees to their homelands, their numbers are still very low, both because they fear reprisals by rival ethnic and religious groups, and due to the lack of steady incomes to support themselves and their families. The vast majority of the refugees and IDPs have grown dependent on the aid provided to them by international aid agencies, which offer shelter, food and medicine. Some of them have lost hope of ever returning to their homes. «Three members of my family have died here, including my husband,» a refugee woman told UNHCR workers in a collective center in Yugoslavia, adding, «But my grandchildren were also born here.» «When we left Mostar (Bosnia) in 1992, I had a loaf of warm bread in my hand. Nothing more. When we first got here we thought, ‘We will go home soon.’ Now there is no hope, especially for us old people.» The refugee agency has been working steadily on the ground to create the conditions for the secure return of the refugees, to help integrate them locally. According to a recent report, certain obstacles were recently removed following talks with the federal Yugoslav government. The agency last year assisted in the return of about 1,000 displaced people in as many as 13 organized moves, while an additional 1,500 villagers have expressed their wish to return this year. According to the UNHCR, as few as 5,000 people have returned to their homes in southern Serbia since the peace agreement was signed in June 2001. Similar patterns were reported in Bosnia-Herzegovina where 600 refugees were returned last year, roughly equal to the number repatriated to Croatia with the help of the UN refugee agency. In Kosovo the agency appears more optimistic, as over 73,000 displaced ethnic Albanians have returned from camps in southern Serbia and FYROM. But the agency is quick to note that this massive return has put additional strain on the already weak infrastructure of Kosovo. Although the goal remains the return of displaced persons to their homes, the refugee agency also works closely with host governments in exploring ways to integrate some of the refugees locally, while the option of resettlement has been reserved for only the most vulnerable individuals, such as women at risk. UNHCR records show that as many as 1,200 persons departed for third countries in 2001, while the agency estimates that a similar number will follow this year. After the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the country which has hundreds of thousands of its prewar citizens scattered in refugee camps is Bosnia-Herzegovina. According to the UNHCR, as many as 458,000 people are still said to be internally displaced in their country, while thousands more are in camps beyond the country’s borders. The agency plans to inject a total of $22 million this year for its operations in the country, aimed at creating the conditions for the return of refugees, providing legal assistance and promoting local integration of especially vulnerable groups. Although seven years have passed since the signing of the Dayton peace agreement, peacekeeping forces in the country have failed to provide a safe and viable environment for the two sides, with a number of people still living in enclaves or refugee camps. NATO announced yesterday that it was scaling down its forces in the country and in Kosovo. The Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia will be reduced from 19,000 troops to approximately 12,000 by the end of the year, with 4,800 peacekeepers withdrawn from the 38,000-strong Kosovo force. In addition, the UNHCR notes that «the shortage of housing and employment and generally poor living conditions continue to discourage return and hold back the process of reconciliation.» In FYROM, the scene of fierce fighting back in February and August 2001 between ethnic Albanians and government security forces, the refugee agency says that as many as 140,000 remain internally displaced, a figure that includes returnees and war-affected populations. Some 81,000 persons fled to Kosovo, another 12,000 to the south of Serbia. Moreover, 5,000 people have sought refuge in the country from Kosovo and southern Serbia. The agency plans to allocate the sum of $12 million to support its mission in the country, which under the Framework Agreement has been mandated to lead the humanitarian efforts and create the conditions for the return of refugees and displaced persons. But as security remains elusive in the region, and as NATO gradually pulls its forces out of the area, it is unrealistic to believe that those hundreds of thousands of displaced people will be going home soon. «Security has improved, but the presence of Swedish troops is essential,» a Serb living in a guarded enclave in Kosovo told UNHCR workers. «I couldn’t think of life without them.»