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Adapting to the needs
by Annick Bouvier

Since March, tensions have been steadily rising in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), where thousands of civilians have been caught in the mounting violence. To come to the aid of all the victims, the ICRC rapidly reinforced its team in the country.

Skopje, 6 Kairska Road, 7h00, 26 June 2001: 18 ICRC vehicles are parked along the small street that has been home to its delegation since 1998. An hour later, most of the vehicles are on the way to the field.

At the beginning of the year, the Skopje delegation only had nine vehicles, which mainly acted as a shuttle between FYROM and neighbouring Kosovo. The delegation played a support role for operations across the border. But, from the time the first clashes erupted in early March in the north and north-west of the FYROM, the delegation's activities went into overdrive.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for a long time served as a model for peaceful co-existence between the different communities (Macedonian, Albanian, Serb, Turk and Roma). Then, early in 2001, the country suddenly plunged into full-scale violence. The ICRC immediately established contacts with the two parties to the conflict — the Macedonian government forces and armed groups of Albanian origin — in order to gain access to the victims.

Tetovo, Kumanovo... Until recently, these two municipalities were largely unknown to the wider public. Together they combine dozens of villages inhabited by thousands of people affected by the conflict. Marcel Scholl, a delegate on his first mission, had to get familiar quickly with the local geography: "Since my arrival, I have made regular visits to villages beyond Tetovo, a region completely unknown to me three months ago." The outpost in Tetovo, set up during the crisis in Kosovo in 1999, was revived and a new office opened in Kumanovo. During the ceasefires negotiated since March, the organization has evacuated more than 800 civilians — mostly the sick, pregnant women, children, the elderly and the wounded. Most of them are accommodated with relatives in towns spared by the conflict. Others needed emergency hospitalization. However, many civilians are still in the zones affected by the fighting; delivery of humanitarian assistance to them is dependent on the constantly fluctuating security conditions.

 

Into the breach

François Stamm is the ICRC head of delegation in the FYROM. A veteran of several years in the Balkans, he briefly describes the particularities of a humanitarian action directed from Skopje.

Since the conflict began, what have been the most urgent needs?
Medical assistance — primarily evacuation of the wounded and distribution of surgical supplies in the combat zones. Displaced people are also in need of food.

What has struck you the most about the way international and national humanitarian actors have responded to the crisis?
At a time when much is said and written about the plethora of humanitarian actors and the risks of duplication, it is interesting to note that the Red Cross is almost the only actor in this context. The ICRC is the only organization that can cross the lines on a regular basis. This enables us to assist civilians directly affected in the areas controlled by the armed group of Albanian origin and to assist these same civilians when they are displaced.
   Apart from the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, there are no other international organizations able to work on both sides of the front line. There are, of course, local NGOs, but they have strong ethnic associations and so are not able to act on behalf of all the victims.

Why is it that other international actors do not have access to these zones?
I think it is independence — our beloved independence — that is the key to our success. We are genuinely perceived as an independent actor.
  The ICRC is the "lead agency". What does that mean?
Above all, a lot of responsibility — responsibility for coordinating this operation and responsibility for ensuring that the financial resources needed to carry it out are available. The American Red Cross has been present since the refugee crisis, as has the Federation, working with our colleagues from the MRC. It is important, therefore, that all our efforts are coordinated. Fortunately, we already have the facilities — warehouses, lorries and operational staff — because Skopje was a large logistical base for Kosovo during the 1999 crisis.

Were you prepared for this current crisis?
We were not hugely optimistic about the future of FYROM. Even so, like everyone else, we were surprised by the rapidity with which the events unfolded. Then, thanks to the work of the people on the spot and also the support of Geneva, which rapidly sent reinforcements, we were able to develop our operational activities efficiently.

What impact have the Macedonian Red Cross activities had?
The MRC has done much in the way of assistance for displaced people. We saw it in March when around 22,000 people fled Tetovo to seek refuge in towns all over FYROM. Thanks to its network and its 34 local branches, the MRC played a vital role in the distribution of relief. The National Society has little in the way of financial resources, but the experience it acquired during the Kosovo crisis has served it well.

How do you see the humanitarian situation developing in the coming months?
For several weeks, the situation has been volatile: the prospects, the hopes and the fears vary from day to day. But, sadly, I think we have to be prepared for things to get worse. And that is exactly what we are doing, for there is a real risk of a deterioration, not only in FYROM but in the region as a whole.

Civilians ultimately pay the price.

Communicate and cooperate

"Sasho, I am just calling to give you some statistics on our activities today west of Kumanovo. What about you? How did the distribution to IDPs [internally displaced people] in Skopje go?" Telephone conversations of this kind are daily occurrences between the personnel of Macedonian Red Cross (MRC) and the ICRC. The National Society manages relations with the media and public dissemination of timely information on Red Cross humanitarian actions. Similar daily exchanges of information also take place with the Federation which continues to assist the MRC in organizational development.

Any information given to the press must be factual and reliable as what is at stake is the well-being and fate of people displaced by this conflict. The assistance programme launched by the ICRC, in cooperation with the MRC, has required the investment of considerable energy and substantial financial resources. By June, the National Society had provided food and hygiene parcels for 55,000 people, in addition to blankets, mattresses, cooking utensils and accessories for infants.

The fluctuating nature of this latest of crises in Europe results in constant change in the ICRC structure within the country. François Stamm, head of its delegation in Skopje remarks, "Since the start of the conflict I have constantly had to revise our organizational chart to include more people." In a space of four months, what was once a small team is now accommodating more and more new staff on a weekly basis in order to adapt to the changing scope of the humanitarian needs of people affected by this conflict.

Annick Bouvier
Annick Bouvier is ICRC information delegate based in Skopje.



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