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
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
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
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
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 is ICRC information delegate based in Skopje.
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