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Krajina aftermath: the ICRC appeals for care and support to save the old people abandones in Krajina.

12-10-1995

 The Aftermath :  

As the Croatian armed forces launched their offensive in the northern and southern sectors in early August, the Krajina Serb population gathered together their most precious possessions and fled in panic in what was the biggest single exodus since the start of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia.

The spotlight of world and media attention shifted to focus on the humanitarian crisis as over 150,000 people made their precarious flight to safety across northern Bosnia.

The ICRC delegates who had maintained a permanent presence in Knin and Vojnic during the offensive emerged from their shelters as soon as it was safe to assess the situation. We were the only international humanitarian organization allowed by the authorities to travel freely in the area.

The ICRC discovered that, although most of the villages and hamlets comprised in the municipalities were eerily deserted, some people had been left behind and many of them were in desperate need of help.

In Knin, delegates also found that some people, instead of joining the column of fugitives, had gathered together for safety in the UN compound, while many elderly people were sitting on the floor of a school hall in a state of distress and bewilderment.

 The forgotten people  

The debris scattered around and the visible vestiges of abandoned domesticity bore witness to the haste with which the people of the Krajina had been forced to flee.

In the ensuing melee, many people were forced to make the distressing decision to stay behind because they did not want to leave their homes or because they were too old, too sick, too weak to make the arduous journey to safety.

Many old people told the ICRC delegates that they had refused to leave their lifelong homes and simply did not have the energy to face an uncertain future in another country.

It is estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 people have been left behind in the remote villages and tiny hamlets of the former northern and southern sectors.

They are living in destitution, poverty and lonely isolation - conditions that will undoubtedly deteriorate without the support structure afforded by their families and members of the local community and with the onset of the region's harsh winter.

The incidents of harassment and violence that have occurred also make it a potentially dangerous environment, so these people need protection in addition to material assistance.

ICRC delegates regularly find villages deserted except for a handful of people, perhaps even with one lone survivor, living in a bleak and sometimes hostile environment. They are predominantly women, nearly always elderly, often bedraggled, living in ramshackle conditions and with no means of finding food after their meagre harvest has been consumed.

They are frightened, lonely and often distraught at being separated from their families - many expressing their regret at having decided to stay behind alone.

 The ICRC response  

The existing ICRC delegations in Knin and Vojnic were at once reinforced with extra expatriate and local staff (most of the local employees had fled in the exodus), and organized into mobile t eams.

The immediate task was to travel as extensively as possible to assess the situation and establish exactly how many people needed help and where they were located.

As the only international organization able to move freely in the area, the ICRC in Knin was also in a position to respond to a plea for help from the UN base, and 36 hours after the offensive a team delivered medical supplies for the wounded who were being treated in the compound and emergency relief for more than 200 people who had sought sanctuary in the grounds.

The ICRC also provided relief supplies, blankets, and hygiene items for the school, where about 200 people had gathered after abandoning their homes in the surrounding villages. This was followed up by regular visits to continue assistance and also to collect and deliver Red Cross messages.

 Relief  

Although many old people still had some food left behind by relatives or produce grown themselves on their smallholdings, it was clear that their meagre supplies would quickly dwindle without the safety net of family and friends.

The ICRC's mobile teams in the region have been making daily tours of the areas around Knin and Vojnic, covering many kilometres in often difficult terrain to reach people with basic emergency aid.

This includes the delivery of individual food parcels, salt, wheat flour, much-needed candles to provide lighting and hygiene items such as soap and detergent. It is not only a way of providing essential short-term assistance, but also an important symbolic gesture of support for people who feel rejected by the outside world.

Thus over 1,440 individual parcels and more than 2,500 kg of wheat flour have already been distributed in the Knin area, and over 1,200 individual food parcels and other relief in the Vojnic area.

 Tracing  

One way of sustaining the hopes and alleviating the loneliness and despair of the people left behind is to deliver the precious Red Cross messages (RCMs) with news from their families.

The mobile teams have undertaken the often arduous task of locating the addressees of RCMs, scattered in remote villages and sometimes too frightened to come out of their homes in response to the coaxing of the ICRC field officer.

The delivery of an RCM is always greeted with the same emotional response - tearful relief at hearing from loved ones, tinged with fear that they may never be seen again.

The invaluable reassurance and psychological boost provided by the Red Cross message network serve as cogent proof of its necessity, and the ICRC has pledged to continue to operate it for as long as it remains the only way for families to keep in touch.

Since the offensive began, the ICRC has exchanged over 7,040 RCMs between family members who have left the Krajina and those who have stayed behind.

 Protection  

As a permanent presence with freedom of movement in the area, the ICRC has had an important part to play with regard to monitoring and protection.

During the Croatian offensive and in its wake, the ICRC has witnessed widespread looting and burning of property and has collected evidence of harassment and some cases of violence against the remaining Serb population.

A recurring plea from the old people left behind is for the ICRC to stay in the area and continue to travel around in order to provide as much as protection as pos sible.

Apart from delivering relief supplies and handling Red Cross messages, one of the tasks of the multi-purpose mobile teams is to hold long talks with the people, collect individual accounts of the events, and prepare reports for submission to the competent Croatian authorities, reminding them of their obligations under international humanitarian law.

In accordance with its mandate, the specific nature of the information collected remains strictly confidential, but the ICRC will continue to monitor the situation closely and stands ready to approach the authorities whenever necessary.

 Medical  

In addition to the traditional role of providing hospitals and health centres which have reopened since the offensive with surgical supplies and medicines to treat chronic diseases, ICRC field nurses have been travelling around the area to monitor the health of the remaining population.

The mobile teams still regularly find people needing medical attention because of basic neglect and report their findings to the field nurses, who follow up the cases accordingly.

In some cases, the ICRC has transported people in urgent need of care directly to hospitals for treatment.

Only recently, an old woman in her eighties was found in a critically frail condition, and living in the remains of a burned-out house, and was taken immediately to Knin hospital. This distressing case will certainly be followed by many more as winter approaches.

The field nurses in the area consider that the grave health problems facing the remaining population cannot be underestimated but that they could be eased by providing basic care and support.

The ICRC appeals for further efforts to relieve the suffering of tho usands of elderly people.

ICRC visits provide these forgotten people with what is practically their only contact with the outside world. It has become clear that their plight is becoming increasingly precarious and that they are facing a daily fight for survival.

The situation can only become worse as winter approaches - the remoteness of their homes, the age and frailty of many of the people and their obvious inability to look after themselves means that there is a very real danger that some of them will simply perish.

The cases of the hidden misery in and around the former Krajina sectors may not be as visibly dramatic as, for example, the scenes of a mass exodus of displaced people, yet the wretchedness, destitution, emotional torment and precarious future faced by thousands of old people is a shocking reality.

The ICRC will continue to distribute relief supplies, deliver Red Cross messages and provide protection by travelling around the area and monitoring the situation closely, but it cannot assume full responsibility for the care and support of the forgotten people of Knin and Vojnic.

We urge the relevant authorities and international organizations to provide more protection, care and support for these vulnerable people who are totally dependent on others for their sheer survival.

Besides providing material aid, the ICRC is also exploring the possibility of reuniting some of the most vulnerable cases with their families, provided that they meet certain criteria.

Says Carmen Burger, head of the ICRC office in Knin: " We are getting more and more worried about these poor people, because many of them tell us that they have simply given up the will to live. "

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Zagreb, September 1995