By Patrick Markey
Irish relief agency workers based on the border with Kosovo are bracing for a second wave of refugees to cross into Albania and into the camps that for the last five weeks have been coping with thousands fleeing the Balkan conflict.
With as many as 400,000 ethnic Albanians still inside Kosovo, relief workers are preparing their operation in Kukes to receive refugees who may be in worse condition than the first arrivals, officials for the Irish-based organization Concern Worldwide said this week.
Concern, the third-world relief agency, has been in the Balkans working to alleviate the suffering of Kosovar refugees since April.
While those preparations continue, Concern is also working with 25,000 refugees already in three of Kukes’ communes, distributing food, clothing and making ready for trauma counseling for those who have crossed the border.
Speaking by telephone from the agency’s Dublin headquarters, Concern’s regional director, Dominic MacSorley, said approximately 70,000 refugees are still in and around Kukes. Many are living in caravans or in communes based in farmhouses and some are still in transit camps.
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“One commune leader had taken in 42 people into his two-bedroom home. They had been there a week. Tensions are starting to build. The euphoria was starting to be replaced by a natural kind of depression,” MacSorley said.
Already an airlift of 35 tons of emergency relief supplies — medicines, vehicles, radios, feeding kits, blankets, biscuits, plastic sheeting — is ready for the expected second wave of refugees.
Concern is also responsible for registration and distribution of food and household items in Kruma, an abandoned chicken farm, one of the six transit sites around Kukes. And the group also plans to supply a food convoy to 2,000 refugees stranded in Bajram Curri, a remote border town.
For the Concern staff of six international members and 20 locals, each harrowing tale coming across the border is a reminder of their volatile situation, MacSorley said.
Take Ali Gashi, the head of an extended family of 24. Eleven were left behind in Kosovo, according to a Concern report. Gashi has a paralyzed son whom he pushed along the road for three days from the family’s hometown of Pec to the border.
“I have been given bread, but how can I eat it when my husband and sons are still in Kosovo. I do not know what has happened to them, if they are alive or dead,” another woman told Concern workers. She had arrived with her grandchildren, after they were forced out of their home by the Serb police.
While dealing with immediate problems such as shelter, food and sanitation, relief workers in Kukes are preparing to cope with the aftermath of the refugee experience. Many have lost family members. Many prefer to stay near the border hoping to find relatives who may be in the next wave. Some have been through much worse.
As more accusations of abuse against women surface and more children arrive without relatives, Concern will send a social worker, with experience in Rwanda, to Northern Albania in mid May to investigate programs for trauma counseling.
“It’s difficult to take in the extent of the human rights violations,” MacSorley said.