Macedonia's great uncertainty

Published: 22 March 2001 0:00 CET

John Sparrow in Skopje

Pensioner Boyana Avramovska waited her turn in Skopje's spring sunshine. It had been five days since she had fled her home in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's troubled northwest, and she trembled as she spoke, uncertainty clear in her face.

Back in Tetovo, the country's second largest city, it was another tense day, and Boyana was not contemplating an early return. Buildings on either side of her downtown apartment block had been damaged in an exchange of shelling and shooting between Macedonian government forces and ethnic Albanian fighters occupying nearby hill positions. And as the world wondered if another Balkan tragedy could be averted, Boyana, her husband, and their two sons packed what they could and departed. Thousands of others went with them.

Precisely how many people have been displaced by the latest events to threaten stability in former Yugoslavia, can only be estimated. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe thinks around 2,500 have crossed into Albania, others have sought refuge in Serbia, Turkey and further afield but most are displaced within their own country, living with friends and relatives. The first came down from the northern Crna Gora mountains two weeks ago and Boyana is among more than 14,000 people who have registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), supported by the Macedonian Red Cross, and said they are in need of assistance. With support from the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, the National Society is distributing food, hygiene and baby parcels, mattresses and blankets to them.

"We have a roof over our heads," said Boyana. "My sister in Skopje took us in. But she cannot afford to feed and keep us. I thought the Red Cross could help us. I am afraid to go home. I think our whole neighbourhood is now in Skopje."

Already the pressures of crowded living are being felt. Svetlana Mileska, a 25-year-old Tetovo social worker, said she had fled with her parents and now shared her brother's one-room apartment in the capital. "I guess we are lucky he is here. But sleeping on the floor and falling over one another does produce tension. I would like to return tomorrow."

Bill Harper, the International Federation's Head of Delegation in Macedonia, believes many displaced have yet to register with the Red Cross. "There could be any number of people out there trying to make it on their own. Someone has taken them in but that isn't the end of the story. Most of them will face problems and then they will visit the Red Cross. We must ensure we are prepared for them and for any other eventuality."

The ICRC and the Federation are pooling supplies and trucking fleets to ensure that besides distribution points in Skopje, Red Cross branches around the country can meet demands from the displaced. Already some 2,000 people a day are being assisted.

How long the host family system can continue to cope is unclear. The ICRC and the Federation are advising the authorities to use the many empty hotel rooms in Macedonia should unmet demand for accommodation present itself. "Around the south-western lakes alone there are thousands of empty rooms," says Bill Harper. "Elsewhere in former Yugoslavia over the past decade, using hotels and holiday accommodation has proved to be a quick and effective answer to sudden need."

The ICRC is the lead agency for the Red Cross Red Crescent in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. For further information visit http://www.icrc.org
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