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

Where Next for the Displaced?

About 110,000 refugees remain in Macedonia, and the hard questions begin: what will they do, where will they go, will they ever return? And will last week's promises of help ever materialise?
By Iso Rusi

Less than a fortnight ago, Blace was a swamp on the Kosovo-Macedonian border, packed with tens of thousands of Kosovo refugees waiting to enter Macedonia. Even now, who remembers? Blace became a global symbol of humanitarian catastrophe, a graphic measure of the scale of the ethnic cleansing underway in Kosovo. Images of the depredation were broadcast hundreds of times daily around the world and reprinted in thousands of daily papers. Yet the media failed to answer the question why getting into Macedonia had become so hard, why it took days to get desperate families out of the mud and into the homes of relatives and friends or properly provisioned refugee camps. Nobody knew whether to blame the Macedonian Government, or the UNHCR and the humanitarian aid organisations. In the end it didn't matter. The swamp--where the refugees stood for days in the cold driving rain, denied proper food, water and sanitary facilities--has been cleared. Now, the bulk of the original 110,000 are in refugee camps built by NATO, with a further 10,000-14,000 in Albania. Seven thousand more are Turkey, Germany or Norway. Presently about 1,500 refugees leave Macedonia daily, a small dent in the total 100,000 that the European Union and the US have promised to take. Turkey has offered refuge to 20,000 and Germany has taken 5,000 from the 40,000 it says it can accommodate. Millions of dollars worth of aid has been pledged but as of the start of this week, only two million dollars' worth delivered. And this is all for now. After announcing that 20,000 refugees will be placed at a US naval base in Cuba, Washington now holds silent. Countries such as Greece and Denmark, which were supposed to take 5,000 refugees each, say nothing.

Thus the largest refugee camp in Macedonia, in Stenkovec, near Skopje, where 30,000 refugees are placed, is becoming a reception camp, instead of a transit one. And this requires a lot more than a town of tents. Meanwhile the 'disappearance' of 10,000 refugees during the clearance of Blace--triggering Western fears of forced return to Serbian hands, even secret massacres -- has been solved. EU European Commissioner Hans van der Broek told A1 TV that the refugees had been 'found' and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) informed. However, the panic created by the clearance of Blace, overnight and out of sight of international agencies, indicates the nervousness of all involved. With NATO intending to see control of the camps fully handed over to Macedonian civilian control within a week, some refugees fear mistreatment by Macedonian officials.

As for the government itself, it admits difficulties with the West's refugee plan. Citing statements by western and UNHCR officials, Macedonian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Boris Trajkovski said he now understood that the west and UN were rethinking plans to move 100,000 refugees from their Macedonian camps to new refuges across Europe and North America. Instead, it seemed they now intend to keep them as close to Kosovo as possible, in anticipation of their early return home. The matter is causing disagreement between the three coalition partners in the Macedonian government. The differences over NATO intervention are clear: the Democratic Alternative (DA) wants the operations halted; the Democratic Party of the Albanians (DPA) continues to back both NATO air and land attacks; and the coalition leaders, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation--Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) is somewhere in between. The refugee issue splits them along the same lines. The DPA wants the refugees to be placed with families and to stay close to Kosovo; the DA wants the numbers in Macedonia to be limited to 20,000, the number that Skopje agreed to before the refugee issue became a regional crisis; and VMRO-DPMNE is again somewhere in between. The differences have given rise to fears of a government collapse, even talk of a 'government of national salvation' led by the present main opposition, the Social democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM)--without the ethnic Albanian DPA taking part. All told, Macedonia lives on a knife-edge, fearful that the fragile multi-ethnic balance in the country will be tested to breaking point by the desire of its ethnic Albanian community to help their brethren in Kosovo. Tensions are rising internationally too. Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paskall Millo has publicly criticised the Macedonian treatment of Kosovar refugees at camps like Blace. And when Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov suggested that the Kosovar refugees concentrate in Albania on the grounds that 'Albania was their home country', Albanian President Rexhep Mejdani accused him of chauvinism. But Mejdani then stoked the fears of the Macedonians by adding "wherever the Albanians live in the region, they live on their ethnic territory". A statement with similar sub-text from Albanian Prime Minister Pandelli Majko, on the lines that nobody should be "afraid of the idea of a united Albania" was also strongly criticised by the acedonian language media. Meanwhile a steady stream of foreign politicians pass through the camps for the benefit of photographers and TV crews, if not always for the benefit of the refugees themselves. They come through in unknowing echo of the 'Sarajevo tours' organised by the West's great and good during the Bosnian war. Then few Sarajevans felt much better after their visits. It took the members of a Berlin theatre company to make a difference. Distressed by the snail-pace of the bureaucracy, they came to the camp with the addresses of temporary homes for 200 refugees in the new German capital. All they need to do was to find the 200 refugees and they could be whisked away to safety in no more than the two days it takes to drive to Berlin from Skopje. That was the theory at least. At time of writing they were still waiting.

Iso Rusi, IWPR's Skopje correspondent, is a journalist with Focus.