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Update No. 98/09 on the activities of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in response to the crisis in Kosovo

19-11-1998 Operational Update

The agreement of 13 October between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and US negotiator Richard Holbrooke contributed towards putting an end to the cycle of violence that had affected tens of thousands of civilians in previous months. Recently, however, tensions seem to have been on the rise once again. There are numerous reports of clashes between withdrawing Serb security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

On the humanitarian side, the improved security environment and the start of winter have been instrumental in the return of a significant number of displaced civilians to their places of origin.

The ICRC was forced to temporarily reduce its operations after a serious mine incident on 30 September. During the build-up of NATO pressure on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the ICRC decided to maintain its operational teams in Belgrade, Pristina and Podgorica. The ICRC is now fully operational again, supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

 Emergency needs in the new situation  

As a result of the relative stabilization of the situation after the agreement was reached, many internally displaced persons (IDPs) have started to return to their villages. The ICRC teams in Kosovo have found, in the places they have visited, that all those IDPs who were previously out in the open, have gone back to their homes. It is, however, noticeable that the percentage of young men among the returnees is very low. Many of them seem to have gone into hiding or fled the region.

Because of the d estruction of property, the impossibility of harvesting the crops, the breakdown of the health system and, in some places, the inadequate water supply, the need for assistance is still great, particularly now that the winter has set in.

The feeling of insecurity among the Albanian population is still strong, fuelled by frequent reports of arrests and harassment. Fear and apprehension are also growing among the Serb population, especially in areas to which the KLA has returned and where it is increasingly active. Cases of new abductions, such as that of two journalists from the state news agency Tanjug, have added to that anxiety. A development that is of great concern to the ICRC is a case whereby the families of two recently abducted Serbs took several Albanians hostage. Both groups were subsequently released, but the ICRC fears that the event may have set an extremely dangerous precedent.

 ICRC response  

The mine incident at the end of September in which one member of an ICRC medical team was killed and three were injured was followed by a short phase in which the delegation had to modify the rules for keeping a balance between its response to the victims'needs and security considerations for its staff. Having done this, daily field missions were reinstated in order to re-establish contact with a wide range of interlocutors so as to better assess the situation of the civilian population in the new context, and to bring assistance.

 Distribution of relief goods  

Since late September, the ICRC has delivered nearly 300 tonnes of food and non-food assistance to some 27,000 beneficiaries in over 20 locations in Kosovo. In addition, a system of distribution follow up is being established by the Pristina delegation.

Since the cold weather has already arrived in the region, preparations for the winter programme, which will provide warm clothes, boots and stoves for 35,000 families (25,000 in Kosovo itself, the rest displaced in Montenegro), have reached an advanced stage.

The ICRC is also supporting the Yugoslav Red Cross in providing assistance to 25,000 people through government-sponsored relief centres in Kosovo.

The Montenegro branch of the Yugoslav Red Cross, which has been assisting displaced Kosovars in Montenegro (estimated at the peak of the crisis to be well over 45,000 and now about 35,000), has been supplied by the ICRC with 600 tonnes of food, blankets, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets and hygiene and baby kits.

 Medical assistance and rehabilitation projects  

On the medical side, ICRC activity focused on supplying about 30 health facilities with essential medical assistance, bringing a flying surgical team to remote areas for primary interventions, and evacuating critical cases to hospitals. Among the health facilities receiving assistance from the ICRC are the main regional hospitals in Pristina, Pec, Prizren, Djakovica, K. Mitrovica and Gnjilane.

During recent assessments, there was found to be an urgent need for medical supplies to local health centres and a shortage of medical staff in many areas. The ICRC identified ten dispensaries where assistance, in the form of medical equipment and essential medicines, is now provided in order to allow them to become fully functional again. Some ambulantas suffered structural damage during the fighting. In order to address this problem, the ICRC intends to rehabilitate targeted health structures and provide medical assistance in addition to water and sanitation interventions. In the interim, the ICRC plans to set up mobile clinics for weekly consultations. Upon their return, local medical staff should take over the consultations from the ICRC mobile teams.

 Water and sanitation  

Assessments carried out by the ICRC water and sanitation team identified a number of problems with regard to chlorinating equipment, damaged installations and contaminated shallow wells.

In Suva Reka, where the chlorinating equipment was damaged during the fighting, the ICRC replaced it. In the same area, the ICRC will disinfect the contaminated shallow wells. Important water projects are also underway in Pagarusa and Stimlje.

 Protection situation  

By undertaking regular field visits, the ICRC is closely following the security situation of the civilian population. Incidents reported and issues raised by the population are presented to the relevant authorities. This includes a broad range of issues, from shooting incidents to the identification of bodies and arrests made by the Serbian authorities.

The ICRC has received reports of over 120 cases of people allegedly being held by the KLA. The ICRC has sought to establish their whereabouts by making regular representations to all possible KLA contact persons. However, the KLA has, to date, only confirmed the detention of two journalists, and is refusing the ICRC access to them.

The ICRC is also seeking to establish the whereabouts of some 50 Albanians whose families have lost contact with them. In addition, it is working on a number of family reunifications between people in Kosovo and their relatives abroad.

 Visits to arrested Albanians in prisons  

Since September, the ICRC has visited some 250 people arrest ed in relation to the crisis in Kosovo and being held in 11 prisons in and outside Kosovo. In addition, the authorities   have informed the ICRC about more than 400 new detainees, yet access to them is being refused on the grounds that they have not yet been sentenced. The ICRC has also received information from other sources regarding a number of people who have allegedly been arrested but no notification has been given by the authorities. In order to obtain full access to all detained persons, the ICRC is seeking a formal agreement with the authorities in the form of a protocol.

 Cooperation with OSCE Verification Mission  

One of the central tenets of the agreement reached between Mr Holbrooke and President Milosevic is the deployment of a 2,000-strong Verification Mission under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The ICRC sought to rapidly establish and maintain a transparent dialogue with the OSCE Verification Mission, thereby contributing to an understanding of the differences in the respective mandates and spheres of activity of the two organizations, and of the importance of distinguishing between the humanitarian and the political dimensions of the crisis.