Julia Taft, Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration and Ambassador James Pardew, Special Representative for Kosovo Implementation, On-the-Record Briefing. "The Humanitarian Situation in Kosovo," Released by the Office of the Spokesman, Washington, DC, November 13, 1998


The Humanitarian Situation in Kosovo

Assistant Secretary Taft: Thank you, Jim [Foley]. I was just out there
for 4 days visiting Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo to try to take a
temperature check, not just of the weather. But I had been there 2
months before when there was really every prospect of a looming
disaster, and I wanted to go back 2 months later, after a number of
things had been put in place, to see whether or not the situation was as
precarious as it appeared at the end of August.

While I was there, sadly, I saw that the devastation had not improved.
In fact, many of the places that I had visited on the first trip, which
had been so destroyed by the VJ forces, were still in disrepair, mostly
along the road from Pristina to Pec to [inaudible]. I was very stunned
by that because I had heard there was great progress.

But, in fact, what we did find is that a lot of people were going back
home. They weren't going to the villages that were right on the highway.
But we got off the road quite a lot and saw that many, many of the
people had been coming back to their villages and, fortunately, were no
longer in the hills--or most of them were not in the hills. I also spent
time checking the pipeline of food and non-food items, which had been a
real problem back in August, and found that, in fact, the food pipeline
is good through June for about 400,000 people, which is really terrific.

We are still believing the situation is very precarious. I'm not here to
tell you that the situation has been solved. I will say, however, that
the humanitarian actors have had free access throughout Kosovo almost on
a daily basis, and they have been able to work well in reaching the
people who have been displaced.
Now, I mentioned that most of the people had come down from the hills
and mountains. That doesn't mean that they are in their own homes. Many
of them are still in host families. But at least these people are not
going to be suffering and freezing with the snow, and I understand it is
snowing today in Kosovo.

While we don't believe the situation is yet a success, such good
progress has been made, but it is very fragile. Let me just give you a
sense of how fragile it is. In one of the villages that we went to and
spent time meeting with several families that were in their compound--
and they were very timid in speaking with us originally, because they
said, we don't want to talk to you. I thought: I've come all this way;
you ought to talk to us. Then we found out that they were afraid that as
soon as we left, that the MUP forces would come in and arrest them and
take away the men. As we said to them: We were going to send in KDOM to
find out that they would be all right; they did go the next day, and
they were fine. But that sense of being so intimidated and so fearful
that the next knock on the door might be a MUP or a VJ has had these
people quite scared. So I think it is really very tenuous, but it still
is good news that they are coming back at least to shelter.

Now the U.S. continues to provide assistance. Right now we've spent
about $61 million, and we are continuing to find other resources to
invest in the humanitarian side. We have also been at the forefront, as
you know, of promoting the KDOM forces and the KVM. One of the really
stunning contributions we've made has been in the mobility of the KDOM
forces, which now are riding around in pumpkin orange Humvees. You all
might think is rather non-military and rather silly, but, in fact, it is
wonderful. It is very clearly not a VJ Humvee. They are very intrusive
in how far around they get and how they can go to off-highway places in
these Humvees. So we're very pleased about the verification process and
observer force.

Throughout the whole experience, it is very humbling to see the Mother
Teresa Society and the other local societies, who still, with their
carts and their tractors, are making daily distributions of weather
material, food, and medicines throughout the whole area. And we think
that the network--there is now a network of about 40 international NGOs-
-we think they are pretty much able to cover most of the country.
So that is the good news, and I wanted to report that and respond to any
questions you might have about the specifics of the humanitarian crisis
or what we see looming ahead of us.

Question: I'm a little confused. The people have come down out of the
hills but not necessarily to their own villages--not to the villages on
the road. Where are they going? There are obviously a lot of other
places that have been burned out.

Assistant Secretary Taft: The numbers game here has always been rather
complicated. The numbers that we were using back in August of internally
displaced persons was between 250,000 and 350,000, of which we thought
about 100,000 were living in the hills and on the mountains out in the
open. Ever since the UN Security Council resolution and the meetings
with Holbrooke and Milosevic, the signal certainly resonated very well
throughout Kosovo that people might have some sense of assurance to come
down.

Since that time, we think all of the displaced persons that were
shelterless, which was about 100,000, have gone back into villages. In
other words, they are not out in the open. There are just about 100,
maybe 200 people who don't have some form of shelter. The rest of them
are returning to villages, mostly to their own villages, but some of
them who have absolutely no village to go back to are staying with host
families elsewhere.

Now I have some specific statistics here from a survey that the UNHCR
just completed with all of the NGOs, and they went around; they actually
just completed it last week. They went to about 250 villages in Kosovo.
What their estimate is now is that there are about 100,000 people still
displaced within Kosovo; 66,000 have gone back to their homes. The
remainder are in other people's homes. Only a couple of hundred are
still shelterless.

Now when we talk about going to live in other people's homes, we have to
understand the Albanian society is a very communal society, and they
live in compounds. So the compounds have the sheds, the animals, and the
houses, and they can accommodate larger numbers of people than their
immediate family. So in every one of these compounds, you see a lot of
people.

We are working with the NGOs on a major winterization--emergency
winterization effort--which is not to rebuild the houses that are
destroyed but rather to provide stoves, plastic sheeting, blankets, and
framing so that people's houses can, at least, have one room which is
big enough for the family and that they can stay in. There will be no
real reconstruction of housing until the springtime, when cement can be
used and the weather is better. So we're just really talking about
emergency winterization. So the people who have shelter are either in
their own homes, or they are in places where they can get, at least,
enough plastic sheeting and warmth to get through the winter.

Question: Are the people returning from other countries where they fled-
-Albania?
Assistant Secretary Taft: In Montenegro--the week I was there--4,000
people left in about 3 days from across the border to go into Kosovo.
Unfortunately, they are really getting harassed at the border. One of
the recommendations we made was to see if we couldn't get KDOM up at the
border--called the [inaudible] border between Kosovo and Montenegro--so
these people can come back in safety. The UNHCR has offered to escort
them back if they would like to come.

But, quite frankly, it's going to be very tough living in Kosovo this
winter, so we are not encouraging people to come back. We're looking
very carefully at the relief requirements in Montenegro as well as in
Albania and in Sarajevo so that for those people who have already left
Kosovo, we can give them enough assistance and then encourage them to
come back in the springtime, but not right now.

Question: You mentioned the United States assistance has been $61
million. Would you mind being more specific--since when that amount has
been spent and until when?

Assistant Secretary Taft: I'll tell you, to save everyone's time, we
have a sheet which will identify--do you have it right there? That is
everything as of last week.

Question: I realize it isn't exactly your brief, but could you get into
the security situation a little bit, as best you understand it. There
are many reports of both Serb police forces coming back into some other
places that they had left and KLA people moving into abandoned spots and
some confrontations. How do you characterize that?

Assistant Secretary Taft: I'll let Jim share with you the official
perception and position on this. But let me just say at the outset: The
cease-fire is holding. That doesn't mean that no one is shooting anybody
else--and every day there are snipers or isolated events--but it is not
a pattern that one could assume that the cease-fire is breaking down.

But the communications among these people is really incredible. When I
was out there, a story about something that had happened about five
villages away, where a couple of people were taken in the middle of the
night--everybody knew it by first thing in the morning. So every time
there is an event where two people get killed or one person gets killed,
everybody knows it. One of the fears that we have is that they will feed
on just a few isolated events and feel that the whole situation is
unraveling, which would be very sad.

But in terms of the specific firefighting, Jim, I'll let you take that
one.

Ambassador Pardew. First of all, let me put it in context. As Julia has
described an improved humanitarian situation, we also have ongoing
political negotiations. We have excellent cooperation--I'll say good
cooperation--between the parties and the international community there--
KDOM. That is to say, they have been addressing issues as they come up,
and we are resolving them on the ground. Bill Walker has arrived there.
OSCE's presence is growing. So the security situation is in the context
of an overall improved situation, dramatically improved from where it
was a month ago when Holbrooke and Milosevic worked this out.

To the specifics of the security situation, I think it is much as Julia
has described. Generally speaking, the cease-fire is holding. There are
incidents which are occurring because there are gray areas on what is
authorized and who is supposed to be where. As people come back in, KLA
have come back. Some of these people are simply villagers who had joined
the KLA and came back as part of the return. We have had incidents. KDOM
has investigated those. We have worked these things out. For example, we
just recently obtained the release of hostages which were being held by
both sides.

So, generally speaking, it has improved. But there are these incidents.
We are concerned about them, and we are working on them every day as
they come up. But the main thing, I think, is that the KDOM people who
are there are not being threatened. They are cooperating with them, and
it's a dangerous environment. Don't get me wrong, it's an extremely
dangerous environment. But the parties aren't threatening them. The
parties are allowing them to move about, and they are negotiating with
them as these incidents come up. So that's the way I would describe it.

Question: Do you see the security situation as continuing to improve, or
do you think it is slowly slipping away--any assessment?

Ambassador Pardew: It has its ups and downs. Two or three days ago, we
had some downs. We had hostages. We had a situation around the Malisevo
area in which there was some firing on a police station there. But KDOM
has reported for the last couple of days that things have been
relatively quiet. I understand there was another incident today. The
tension is occurring in two places--in Malisevo and the Drenica area.
Other than those areas, generally speaking, it's quiet.

Now the last couple of days have been much better. So I won't say there
is a trend downward here. But things do happen, and it has been up and
down.

Assistant Secretary Taft: I guess one of the things that--at least, from
the NGO perspective--is really critical is to have outside observers,
and there are lots of NGOs. As I said, there are 40 international NGOs
with lots of staff. We now in our own KDOM have--what is it--172 people
out there. The European KDOM is out there. We really believe that as
soon as there is even a larger buildup with the verification people--and
they are going to be spread all over Kosovo--that that will be a great
calming influence. But as you can imagine, the UCK is coming into places
that the VJ moved out of.

The people themselves, I think, are quite neutral. They don't want
anybody around. They just want to get their firewood. They just want to
get some food. They want to be able to go out to their fields. They want
to repair their homes. They don't want any police. They don't want any
rebels around. It's they who are really suffering, because they don't
trust either side.

Question: In your and your staff's wanderings around the country, you
have not found widespread support for the KLA?

Assistant Secretary Taft: I think people just want peace, and they want
to get back to their lives. They weren't terribly political before. The
biggest thing they want now is to get their kids back in school. We've
got thousands and thousands of children who want to go back to school. I
don't think that the peasants or the people themselves are that
politicized. That doesn't mean that, as Ambassador Pardew said, some of
the people who are part of the KLA or were with the UCK or just family
members who were swept up in the movement are now coming back to their
villages.

But I think if you see how communal the society is, and if you see the
people live--in very modest environments--they are not a politicized
group of people. What they just want to do is have the fighting stop and
to go back home. They are going back home, and the big fighting has
stopped, at least, for a while. Now, everybody says that maybe it won't
hold. But, again, if during this period of the onset of winter, and we
get all the verification people up there, I'm very optimistic that the
presence will--and it will be a sustained presence--it will really help
quite a lot.

Question: The schools they go back to, are those Albanian-language
schools?

Ambassador Pardew: Mostly, yes. I've been told that the Serbian
students--none of their schools have closed; Albanians students--most of
the schools have been destroyed. But they are starting up new ones.
We're getting books and materials for them. This is also very good
psychologically, because the kids who have been uprooted will then be
able to go back and, at least, feel that they are anchored somewhere in
their society.

Question: General Clark was quoted telling NATO parliamentarians that we
have to recognize that at this time both the Kosovo Liberation Army and
the Serbs are re-arming and preparing for confrontation again. From
either of your observations, is that a fair assessment? What is the
feeling here in this building about that?

Ambassador Pardew: There are certainly elements in both sides of this
conflict who would like to see the fighting resume, and we don't accept
that. Yes, there is some re-arming going on, but we think that it is
important that we get these international verifiers on the ground in
larger numbers as soon as we can to prevent this fighting from resuming.
We don't see right now a trend in that direction. That is to say, we see
no indication that the VJ are moving back to the kinds of postures they
were before. But, yes, we do believe the Serbian police presence there
is too large, that there are special police still in Kosovo who should
not be there, and there have been violations of the cease-fire.

So we are not happy with the overall situation. We continue to press it.
We see these reports that some sides are re-arming, and we, of course,
want that stopped.

Question: Where are the arms coming from--arms are coming from
Yugoslavia? Where is the KLA getting their arms?

Ambassador Pardew: I can't answer that. I don't know the answer to that.

Question: Do you have any suspicions?

Ambassador Pardew: No, not that I'm going into here.

Assistant Secretary Taft: He's guns; I'm butter. Any other butter
questions?

We will make sure you all have a list of what the major contributions
are that have been made. The situation changes daily, and perhaps if
there are some specific questions you would like regular updates on, we
can give them to Jim.

Question: The humanitarian workers are by and large able to go and make
their distributions undisturbed: Is that correct?

Assistant Secretary Taft: That is correct. We're going to be worried
about whether they can get into some of the remote areas when the
weather is bad, but there has been no intimidation or physical barriers
by either side for the relief operations.

Question: What effort is being made to provide shelter or to get the 200
or so who are without shelter into either a host house or someplace so
that they are not outside in the winter?
Assistant Secretary Taft: First of all, the philosophy has always been
that you take care of the people wherever they are. We didn't want to
give any false security to people, to say it's perfectly fine to go back
to this village and then have something happen. So the people who are
now displaced; they have all been identified as a result of this survey,
and they are going to be encouraged to find some shelter in a different
village. That would be taken care of by the NGOs.

Part of it also is being afraid to go and find out if your village is
still okay. They need maybe one or two people from the group that is
still in the hills to go and check it out and then come back and get
people. But it's just light-years' improvement from 2 months ago.

Thank you for your attention.

[End of Document]


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