NEWS STORY: Relief criticizes Kosovo accord as insufficient to protect refugees

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ World Vision, the evangelical relief group which runs a major humanitarian aid program in Kosovo, has sharply criticized the U.S.-brokered cease-fire accord, saying the settlement does not guarantee the safety of the tens of thousands of refugees left homeless by Serb military and police action.”In our estimation this is not going to help displaced people get back to their homes,”Serge Duss, World Vision associate director of public policy and government relations, said in an interview with RNS. Duss is just back from a trip to Kosovo and other parts of the region.”This agreement has no teeth to provide the security for the displaced people,”Duss added.

The peace accord, announced Tuesday (Oct. 13) by U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, commits to reducing the Yugoslav army and Serb police force. It also calls for putting 2,000 unarmed observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe whose mandate is to monitor the accord.

Duss’ comments reflect a growing concern _ and, in some cases, outright panic _ as a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo grows imminent. With winter just weeks away, tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians will freeze to death unless they find shelter, according to aid groups. Rain in the mountains has recently soaked the muddy ground and water supplies have become too cold to bathe in, so hygiene problems like lice and scabies run rampant.

Having fled Serb aggression, the refugees are camped in the hills under crude tents of plastic sheets and tree branches.

While the U.N. refugee agency estimates that 50,000 are homeless in the region, many relief groups claim the number is at least double that.

Duss said he is concerned Milosevic will manipulate the accord as a means to stave off air strikes while actually continuing his campaign to stamp out ethnic Albanian rebels seeking independence _ or greater autonomy _ for Kosovo, which is predominantly ethnic Albanian but also a symbol of Serb national identity.

Displaced Albanians have long said they will not return home while the Yugoslav military and Serb police remain in their villages, Duss said.”Refugees are fearful of Serb police that remain everywhere,”he said.”These were the people that were responsible for death and destruction. They (Kosovars) are not going to return to their towns and villages _ if there remains a presence of police force _ just because an accord was signed.” Because the situation in Kosovo is so urgent, Duss and others have expressed concern about the ability to quickly mobilize a 2,000 member observation team in a way relief agencies can take advantage of the window of opportunity presented by the accord.

But Duss also said an observation team can not guarantee the refugees’ safety, which is the bottom line in getting people to move out of the mountain woods and return to their villages.

Officials from other aid agencies, however, are more optimistic than Duss.

The threat of air strikes left an impression on the Serbs, said a Catholic Relief Services official. “At this point, the threat of NATO airpower was made pretty clear and I think if we can get 2,000 monitors in there it will be pretty hard to hide troop activity. I think we can be reasonably optimistic,”said Phil Oldham, C.R.S. regional team leader.

Catholic Relief Services is poised to start a massive food program which will feed 150,000 people for nine months. The program is funded by a $10 million grant from the U.S. government.

Other groups also welcomed the accord.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the interfaith peace and justice organization in the U.S., released a statement opposing the use of threatened NATO air strikes.

Air strikes would only increase hostilities and further isolate the civilians, according to the 85-year old organization.

In a statement, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches welcomed the accord but also said the agreement falls far short of what is needed to resolve the Kosovo conflict.

All parties agree that the Kosovo pact does afford some much needed breathing room. Humanitarian relief workers have returned to the area since they were evacuated as the NATO strikes loomed, and convoys of relief supplies are going out daily.

However, disagreement about the future of the refugees persist.”They are really going to have to make a decision to come down from the mountains or freeze to death and I think they will come down,”Oldham said.”I think there is still enough left that people can come back and live with friends and neighbors,”said Oldham.

According to Duss, resources including food, medicine and shelter will be available. But the question of whether the refugees will feel safe enough to return home remains in doubt. “My family and I would rather freeze to death in the mountains than be killed by the Serbs if we return to our home,”Duss said, recalling the words of one refugee with whom he spoke.

DEA END ROCKWOOD

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