Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Meagre Welcome For The Fleeing Masses

Kosovo refugees streaming over the Albanian border near Kukes in their thousands are being met by two aid workers distributing biscuits and two Italian Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out fliers urging them to love each other.
Nine days after NATO launched its bombing campaign and the exodus began in earnest, aid is still failing to reach the refugees as they complete their trek to safety. With somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 refugees massed at the border crossing and another 15,000 expected to arrive tomorrow, none of the major aid agencies is present and distributing relief supplies.

The two aid workers on the border are both Albanians working for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). They are handing out boxes of biscuits, each containing 20 packets, to the refugees, many of whom had not eaten since fleeing their homes. They also have two barrels of water.

Standing 50 feet from the aid workers, two Italian Jehovah’s Witnesses were offering the latest arrivals spiritual solace. They were handing out fliers in Albanian saying "We have to learn how to love each other" and posing the question "Does everybody understand this?" The words were set over a picture of the smiling faces of young people of every ethnic and racial background, all apparently living in some sort of tropical harmony, complete with palm trees.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were dressed in two-piece suits and sparkling white over-coats, had not come to Kukes to proselytize, but to meet their co-religionists from the Kosovo towns of Djakovica and Pristina whom they hoped to find among the refugees. They decided that since they were there, they should make the most of the situation and distribute the fliers.

In addition to the CRS workers and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a five-man team of French doctors from Medicins du Monde arrived in Kukes today and began seeing to the medical needs of the refugees.

Representatives from both the UN High Commission for Refugees and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe had also come to assess the situation, though not to distribute aid. Albanian border guards noted names of the latest arrivals, most of who no longer possessed Yugoslav identity documents.

The refugees themselves, most crammed into tractor-driven wagons, had come from an area between Pristina and Prizren. Sulumjen Berisha, a 64-year-old man from Pristina set off walking on Wednesday with 10 members of his family. He said: "We left Pristina in flames and have been walking without food or water for the past two days, sleeping in the open among the Serb forces."

Mr. Berisha wanted to know where he could get food and water and whether anybody had information about other family members who had fled one day earlier. A border guard advised him to keep going because there was no assistance at the border.

More than 100,000 refugees have crossed into Albania at the same point in the past 10 days. The population of Kukes was 24,000 before the refugee influx. Tonight it will be greater than 50,000. In the absence of tents, most of the refugees are obliged to sleep out in the cold.

Fron Nazi is a senior IWPR editor.