By September 1998, at least 300,000 people had been displaced in Kosovo, the vast majority of them ethnic Albanians. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of August 31, 40,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo were in Montenegro, 15,000 were in Albania, and 20,000 were in Macedonia. At least 50,000 displaced persons are considered exposed, meaning they are without any shelter in the open mountains or woods. Humanitarian aid agencies and top government officials warn of a human catastrophe once winter arrives if shelter cannot be found for these people. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Julia Taft, who visited Kosovo in late August, said of her trip:
It was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I have had in twenty-five years of working in humanitarian relief. We have a catastrophe looming, and we only have as a world humanitarian community six weeks to help the government of Serbia respond to this crisis.87 The snows come early, I understand, to this part of the world. With the snow may come the death of many of the more than 300,000 people who have been displaced from their homes because of the conflict in Kosovo.88
Despite this, the Yugoslav government has posed a number of obstacles to the delivery of aid for internally displaced persons (IDPs), ignoring promises to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian agencies.89 More over, it continues to carry out a military offensive that results in further displacement and a security environment not conducive to return. First and foremost among these are the continued attacks on villages and the burning of settlements in excess of any possible military necessity, deliberately damaging or systematically destroying homes, which keep civilians from returning. Scattered in valleys and forests, many of the displaced are unreachable by the aid agencies working out of Pritina. In addition, direct restrictions on the aid agencies, and even attacks, severely hinder their ability to reach those in need.
Albanian and foreign relief workers have faced a series of obstacles from the government in their attempts to deliver food to the internally displaced, including restricted access to needy populations, confiscation of supplies, harassment and, in the case of the Mother Theresa Society, the largest and most important local relief organization, occasional arrests and attacks.
The most serious attack on humanitarian aid workers, local or international, was the August 24 attack by Serbian police on an aid convoy that killed three ethnic Albanians working with the Mother Theresa Society. According to the New York Times, the August 24 attack occurred at mid-afternoon in an open field in the village of Vlaski Drenovac near Kijevo, when police fired upon an aid convoy of tractors with cannon-fire from about half a mile away. The wagons were reportedly filled with boxes clearly marked Doctors of the World, the relief agency that had donated the food supplies. Sadri Ramadan Gashi (61), Adem Isuf Morina (40), and Hajriz Haxhi Morina (24) were killed. Local and international press reported that the convoy had previously been allowed through a Serb checkpoint.90 According to the New York Times, the government explained the barrage by saying that the police in an armored personnel carrier could not see what was in the wagons and became suspicious and opened fire. U.S. Department of State spokesman James Foley contradicted this by saying the evidence indicates that the workers vehicle was deliberately targeted by a Serbian armored vehicle less than a kilometer away in broad daylight.91 Diplomats in Belgrade told Human Rights Watch that they were convinced the Serbian police had fired directly on the convoy from a nearby hill.92
In an August 28 press conference held in Pritina after her brief visit to Kosovo, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Julia Taft said she had raised the attack on the Mother Theresa Society convoy with the Yugoslav authorities. I must say I was very reassured by the regret and the apology by the authorities that these people had been killed, she said. And there is going to be an inspection.93
The Mother Theresa Society has reported attacks on its activists before, but this was the first reported death. On July 11, two Mother Theresa Society activists in Dakovica, Fatime Boshnjaku and Uran Luxha, were arrested while delivering supplies in town. Many others have reported harassment and interrogations.
Also on July 11, three activists of the Mother Theresa Society were fired upon by people believed to be the police while returning from an aid delivery in the village of Cibovc. Xhevdet Stulcaku, vice president of the Mother Theresa Society in Obilic, was struck in the head and is currently paralyzed on his right side.94 Selatin Hashani, secretary of the Society in Obilic, was also wounded.
On August 31, more than 200 ethnic Serb women demonstrated in front of the United States Information Agency office in Pritina to protest reported executions of Serbian civilians by the KLA in Klecka (see section on Abuses by the KLA). They threw stones at the building shouting Fascists! and Murderers! as the police watched from a distance.95 The crowd then moved to the office of the ICRC, where they pelted the building with stones and beat up an ethnic Albanian guard while accusing the ICRC of bringing humanitarian aid to the terrorists. According to one press report, the women then got on two buses that Serb policemen had brought for them.96
A fundamental problem for all humanitarian aid organizations working in Kosovo is restricted access to civilians in need. On numerous occasions, the Serbian police have blocked aid convoys on main roads. Some medical supplies and food stuffs have been confiscated by the police on the grounds that it was intended for Albanian terrorists.
Human Rights Watch raised the issue with Bosko Drobnjak, head of the Secretary of Information in Kosovo. He said that the police had occasionally blocked aid convoys because some humanitarian organization have been helping terrorists. Not necessarily with weapons, but with military equipment.97
Humanitarian aid agencies working in Kosovo told Human Rights Watch that they are frequently denied access to areas where fighting is taking place. From May 20 to approximately June 21, for example, the ICRC was denied access to the Decan area where a large police and army offensive was under way. An ICRC press release said that they had been denied access, despite a number of previous assurances from the highest authorities in Belgrade that the ICRC would be able to work unhindered in Kosovo.98
In early July, the police forced an aid convoy from Medecin San Frontiers (MSF) to deliver its supplies to a collective center with ethnic Serbian refugees in Dakovica, rather than give it to the Mother Theresa Society for distribution, as MSF had intended.99 On August 27, a Serbian police checkpoint at Slatina turned back an eight-truck convoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that was carrying one months worth of food for more than 30,000 families.100
The police also blocked aid deliveries during the police attacks in Drenica from February 28 to March 1. Doctors were also not allowed into the Drenica villages of Likoane, Cirez and Prekaz to perform autopsies on those killed, although there was strong evidence to suggest summary executions (see section on Abuses in Drenica). In a press conference held on March 7 to explain the police actions in Drenica, Police Colonel Ljubinki Cvetic said that humanitarian organizations had been denied access to the area because some of them had supplied arms and equipment to terrorists.101
In August, international relief agencies reported continued obstructions by the government, such as the denial of visas for foreign staff, lengthy customs procedures for imported relief supplies, and the slow processing of licences for hand-held radios used by relief agencies to communicate with their staffs in the field.
The KLA has reportedly also blocked some relief convoys (see section Abuses by the KLA).87 Assistant Secretary of State Taft was referring to a proposal from the Yugoslav government to open eleven humanitarian centers around Kosovo to distribute aid to the internally displaced. On September 4, Assistant Administrator for Humanitarian Response at the U.S. Agency for International Development, Hugh Parmer, said that the U.S. government supports the Yugoslav governments idea and will donate U.S.$1.8 million for aid to displaced persons, in addition to the $11 million already provided. The money, Parmer said, would be used for emergency food packets to be distributed through the eleven centers announced by the Yugoslav government, but there was no clarification of the security measures that would guarantee the safety of the ethnic Albanians who came to receive aid. 88 Press conference of Assistant Secretary of State Julia Taft, Belgrade, August 28, 1998. 89 Following a June 16, 1998, meeting between Presidents Miloevic and Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, the Yugoslav government agreed, among other things, to allow diplomats and humanitarian agencies full access throughout Kosovo. 90 Arta, Pritina, Kosovo, August 24, 1998, and The Guardian, London, August 26, 1998. 91 U.S. State Department Press Briefing, Washington D.C., August 27, 1998. 92 Human Rights Watch interview, Belgrade, September 1, 1998. 93 Press conference of U.S. Assistant Secretary Julia Taft, Pritina, August 28, 1998. 94 Human Rights Watch interview with Xhevdet Stulcaku in Obilic, September 22, 1998. 95 Serb Women Stone US Building In Protest; Yugoslavia Refuses Visa to US Envoy, AP, August 31, 1998. 96 Serb Women Stone US Center, ICRC in Kosovo, AFP, August 31, 1998. 97 Human Rights Watch interview with Bosko Drobnjak, June 11, 1998, Pritina. 98 Kosovo: ICRC Urgently Requests Access to Affected Areas, ICRC press release 98/21, June 3, 1998. 99 Human Rights Watch interview with Francois Fille, Pritina, June 10, 1998. 100 UNHCR Aid Convoy Repulsed Near Kosovo Capital Pritina, AFP, August 27, 1998, and UN Inter-Agency Update on Kosovo, August 28, 1998. 101 Interior Ministry Spokesman Gives Press Conference, Tanjug, March 7, 1998.