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Balkan crisis

The conflict between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia over Kosovo has ended, but the victims will require assistance for years to come. All components of the Movement are mobilized, with the volunteers of the Albania, Macedonia and Yugoslavia Red Cross working tirelessly to bring some comfort to those whose lives have been turned upside down.

What are the Movement's priorities and resources? And how is the humanitarian assistance distributed when you consider the numerous traps and risks of exploitation laid on the path of the victims?


Lost identity

For the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fleeing the conflict in Kosovo, restoring links with loved ones is their first priority. The Red Cross and Red Crescent is using the power of modern technology to help these people.
 

“Besnik Shane,* resident of Prizren and accompanied by 17 members of his family, arrived in Kukes on 16 April.” Replayed over the radio waves three times a day, messages like this are often the only way relatives can let family members know they are alive and find out how loved ones are doing, wherever they may be. Faced with an avalanche of requests to help find missing family members, the ICRC and the Albanian Red Cross (ARC) organized a radio message system, which broadcasts via Radio Tirana and the Albanian language services of Deutsche Welle and Voice of America.

A wave of international solidarity has led to other initiatives to support tracing programmes. One example is the drive by the French Red Cross and Radio France Internationale to supply refugees in Macedonia and Albania with transistors for receiving the radio messages.

*Fictitious name

 
 

S.O.S.

You only have to see the clusters of people in front of the post office and around the few public telephone booths to get a measure of the prevailing anxiety and the importance of the telephone. In order to supplement this network, the ICRC has made a satellite system available to the refugees – the only alternative to the saturated Albanian network – whereby they can phone a relative of their choice for one minute free of charge. This first contact can then lead to a request for a family reunification or to whatever direct financial assistance the relative abroad can muster.

For the new arrivals, every scrap of information is seized on like a lifeline, even if rumour is often confused with reality in the desperate need for certainty. Newspapers publish lists of people trying to get in touch with relatives, the addresses and telephone numbers of the National Society branches and practical details about transit areas. The ARC, with its well-established local presence, is becoming more involved in providing tracing services at the district level.

A mine of information on the Web

In order to bolster this massive undertaking, the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency in Geneva – in coordination with the National Societies of the countries sheltering some of the exiles – has set up the first tracing and communication programme on the World Wide Web (www.familylinks.icrc.org). A Red Cross message can now be sent in the form of an e-mail or a person can search through the electronic directory containing the names of the many people seeking relatives.

Beyond the myriad requests to re-establish family contact, it should be remembered that most of the people who have joined this exodus have lost their identity on the way: passports and car number plates were more often than not confiscated as they fled. Sadly, this loss of official reference only serves to complicate even further the outcome of the dramatic events taking place.

 
  Jean-François Berger

Desperate circumstances

Hamide Bugari’s worst nightmare began as she fled Kosovo on foot with her seven small children. She realized they would not make it unless she could find someone to carry one of her youngest children. A man on a tractor promised to bring her one-year-old daughter, Pranvera, into safety in Albania. When Hamide and the others finally arrived, she could not find her daughter anywhere.

“I just want to know whether she is still alive, that’s enough for me. She is so young, I am afraid she would not survive if they didn’t make it across the border and were forced to stay out in the open inside Kosovo,” Hamide says.

She has temporarily settled in a camp in Albania. Through the Red Cross, she is trying to locate her daughter. The ICRC tracing unit has broadcasted messages on BBC, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America and Radio Tirana, asking for information about Pranvera.

“I was so tired when I asked the man on the tractor for help, I could barely carry Pranvera anymore. The other children were scared. My youngest son is two years old. To be able to take care of them, I had to ask the man on the tractor if he could take Pranvera with him to Albania. I wrote down his name, but that is the only information I have.”

Hamide is totally heartbroken over her lost child. Every day she has to pull herself together to care for the six others.

“I don’t even have a photograph of Pranvera. There has been fighting in Kosovo ever since she was born, so we never had a chance to take her to the photographer.” The only pictures Hamide has still got are in her own memory.

 
Johannes Løvhaug and Ellen Berg Svennæs

Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent.
Johannes Løvhaug is a journalist with the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.
Ellen Berg Svennæs is the Federation information delegate in Tirana, Albania.



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