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June 1999 Report from the Balkan Peace Team

The Work of BPT-FRY Following the Outbreak of War in Kosovo


In late March, when NATO planes began to bomb Serbian targets, and Yugoslav soldiers began forcing masses of Kosovo Albanians to flee their homes, a number of people asked whether the Balkan Peace Team project in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (BPT-FRY) would end its operations. Since our mandate has been to promote Serbian-Albanian dialogue, they naturally wondered if BPT might be another casualty of the new war.

We are pleased to report that BPT-FRY is continuing its work in the region. The war has meant that our team must temporarily change its base of operations to Macedonia, and must travel extensively in the countries surrounding FRY. We are reshaping the project activities to adapt to the disasters that the war has brought to both Serbian and Albanian societies, and to support local NGOs in the new struggles that they face. Our goals and mandate, however, remains as important as ever: to support civil society initiatives and to encourage and foster dialogue and other bridge-building efforts between Serbs and Albanians.

In a recent exploratory trip to the region, the BPT-FRY team heard from some of the people they met that reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians will now be impossible. From many others, however, they heard that future dialogue and communication is not only possible, but absolutely essential. BPT was given strong encouragement to continue filling our unique our role as networkers at the grassroots level, visiting and communicating with NGOs in both communities.

A Short Background on Balkan Peace Team

Balkan Peace Team is a project which places international volunteers in areas of the former Yugoslavia where their presence and their skills can be useful to local advocates of peace and human rights. Our teams are nonpartisan in their approach, seeking to support groups and individuals on all sides of a conflict.

BPT-FRY has been working in Serbia and Kosovo since 1994. Our primary focus there has been to build bridges between Serbs and Albanians, supporting dialogue efforts and other activities which strengthen civil society. The team's daily work is predominately networking: visiting regularly with local NGOs; learning about their situations and needs; offering information on international resources; and always listening carefully for where there is an interest to build links across ethnic lines. One highlights of our work was a dialogue and discussion which BPT helped to bring about in 1998 between Serbian and Albanian university students. Another example was BPT's work with a Serbian peace group who asked us to help them build their first links with like-minded Albanians. This activity eventually led their members to serve as observers at the 1997 nonviolent Albanian student demonstrations in Prishtina.

BPT-FRY Activities since the War in Kosovo Began

Leaving Belgrade

On March 24, the BPT-FRY volunteers, living in Belgrade, decided to temporarily leave FRY. They had developed a list of criteria and guidelines for making this difficult decision. They perceived that the new State of Emergency that was called by the Serbian government on the eve of the NATO bombing would severely limit their access to information and their ability to communicate. The team went by bus to Croatia, where the BPT maintains another project. There they met with their advisory Sub-Group and mapped out contingency plans.

Speaking Tours

BPT decided that the team should use the following weeks in April to travel and speak to European audiences. This would give them an opportunity to share their information about how the war was affecting the work of local NGOs. Two speaking tours were quickly organized, one in Germany and the Netherlands, which was coordinated by the BPT International Office, and one in the Great Britain, which was coordinated by the British office of Peace Brigades International. Team member Lyn Back traveled to 15 cities in Germany and the Netherlands, sometimes speaking at two or more events in a city. She received extensive local media coverage. Erik Torch and Alan Jones spoke at 9 events in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Alan, being Welsh, was interviewed a number of times for BBC Wales.

Their talks covered information about local NGOs in both the Serbian and Albanian communities and how the war was affecting their work. They explained the work of Balkan Peace Team. They described the nonviolent strategy which the Kosovo Albanians had followed for many years, something that most of audiences were not aware of. The talks always ended with suggestions of actions people could take in their own country.

These tours provided the team members with insights which will be helpful when they are back in the field. They now have a much greater understanding of how this war has sharply divided public opinion in European society. They are also more aware of how limited their audiences are in getting information about NGOs in the region. Such topics do not get much coverage in the international press.

The tour was followed by a second strategic planning session to assess the current political situation and map out further interim plans.

Travel in Macedonia and Hungary

In early May, the team embarked on a 2 ½ week exploratory trip to Macedonia and Hungary. Their goal was to bring back an impression of civil society initiatives that are continuing to take place among Albanians and Serbs, now that their communities have been displaced and destroyed by the war. The team was particularly interested to find out if there were groups and individuals who still held an interest in future Serb-Albanian dialogues.

The team members drew up a long list of people to contact, including their former contacts. They were aware in advance that many of the people with whom they would be speaking would still be in some kind of shock and trauma after their experiences. The first step would be to listen to their stories. The team kept their expectations low and their approach low key.

In Macedonia, they were able to meet with several individuals and representatives from Kosovo NGOs they had known previously, as well as with international and Macedonian NGOs. Among others, they met with the Humanitarian Law Centre in Prishtina which is now gathering testimonies from refugees from the Drenica area; with a Kosovo woman who is trying to set up a café that will have Internet access and space for musicians and artists; and with the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation that has produced a pamphlet for refugees detailing their rights under Macedonian law. They were also able to meet with some young people from the Nansen Group, a project based in Norway which involved both Serbs and Albanians in training and dialogue experiences.

Team members visited five refugee camps in Macedonia and were also able to meet with refugees living in private accommodations. One of the camps was self-governing. While basic necessities were covered, they found that many camps lacked children's programs or any other organized social activities. They met with one international NGO, the American Friends Service Committee, which is working with a Kosovo women's group, to meet the social needs of women in one camp, setting up a "women's tent", for example, where the women can get together to drink coffee and talk.

In Hungary, the team focused on the refugees situation as well, but the information was more elusive. While only a few thousand Serbs are living in refugee camps, it was estimated that there are as many as 100,000 Serbian refugees in Hungary, most of them coming as tourists and arranging their own accommodations.

Conscientious objectors form a sizeable portion of the refugees in Hungary. BPT met with a Belgrade activist who is helping to organize a "Safehouse" project which will provide accommodation for C.O.s and serve as a gathering point for these young men. They met with two international organizations, the AFSC and Norwegian People's Aid, that have made their offices into gathering points for Serbian NGOs and activists who travel from Belgrade. They also met an Hungarian environmental group that is focusing now on the environmental effects of the NATO bombings.

During their stay in Budapest, team members found themselves spending much of their time relaying information about NGOs in Macedonia. The activists in Budapest were eager to learn about their Albanian friends and counterparts and the state of their NGO work.

Travel Insights

Short as their visit was, these meetings and visits in Macedonia and Hungary provided new insights about the role that BPT might fill and about some of the new struggles that groups are facing.

The team's ability to network between different groups was apparent. Each group they visited was eager for information about the others, and trusted BPT as the source. One activists put it directly to them, "you are in a very unique position to do this because you have a history or working with both Serbs and Albanians at the grassroots." In discussions with Kosovo Albanians, they often found an initial strong reaction that future dialogue possibilities between Serbs and Albanians were impossible. But at the same time, people would acknowledge that the two groups had to find a way to live together eventually. The greatest hope was with the young people. Many felt that reconciliation cannot happen with the current adult population but that with the youth, attitudes can still change. BPT saw that it was with the young people who had been in projects like the Nansen Group and the Post Pessimists that they found the most openness in considering future dialogues.

A Four Month Program Plan

As a result of the trip and the information gathered by the team, BPT has mapped out an intensive program for the summer months. Because of the changing political situation, it is not time yet for longer-range planning.

In June, one team member will attend a Richardson Institute Serb-Albanian dialogue conference in Bulgaria, along with many of our Kosovo contacts. The team will then continue their travel and research into NGO activities. The will also begin to support some local activities which may lay the groundwork for future links between Serbs and Albanians. Most important, they will increase their efforts at conveying information between the different groups who are divided now by geography and by war.

BPT-FRY's program plans are as follows:

The team will base itself in Macedonia and make regular monthly visits to Hungary. This will put them in regular contact with the civic initiatives that are developing. Their regular availability and their consistency in visiting with both sides will strengthen the trust from local NGOs.
The team will travel to Albania for two weeks in July, and to Bosnia (Republika Srbska and Sarajevo) in August. These trips will involve visits Serbian and Kosovo Albanian NGOs, as well as local and international NGOs that are working with refugees. They will also seek out refugee self-organizing efforts. As with the first trip, their purpose will be to gather information on civic initiatives and to listen for openings for future dialogue.
As they travel throughout the region, we anticipate that the team will help in building the following links:
  • between Serb NGOs in Hungary and Kosovo Albanian NGOs in Macedonia;
  • between Macedonian NGOs and Kosovo Albanian NGOs working in Macedonia;
  • between Kosovo Albanian NGOs working with refugees in Macedonia and Albania;
  • between international NGOs that have recently arrived and local NGOs; and
  • between the Serbs and Albanians who have previously participated in dialogue workshops and trainings such as the Nansen Group and the Richardson Institute.
BPT has made contact with a Kosovo Albanian man who is concerned about how Albanian children are now surrounded by images that encourage them to hate all Serbs. He wants to arrange a holiday camp which will give children a needed break from the tensions of refugee life. He would like to include in the camp program a workshop that could address the need to unlearn this hatred. He has asked BPT to help with this aspect. We are encouraged and impressed by this conscious effort to prepare the younger generation for some kind of reconciliation. BPT-FRY will offer support by providing links to resources and similar projects in conflict areas, and by being available with other suggestions as the project takes shape.
BPT learned that there are 10,000 Serb refugees living in Macedonia who are mostly overlooked by the aid agencies. Using their links to Serbian NGOs as a way to build contacts and trust in this community, the BPT-FRY team will see what networking can be done to bring these refugees into contact with services and support.
In its travels and visits, the team will gather information about specific NGOs needs that could be met by the Balkan Peace Team. In particular the team will be listening and investigating ideas for concrete projects that could be part of our long-term strategy in the region.
While BPT will make no decisions about long-term projects until September 1999, one area of concern the team will explore during the summer will be the situation facing conscientious objectors and military resisters in both communities, those who resist or desert the Yugoslav military and those who choose not to join the Kosova Liberation Army (UÇK).
The BPT-FRY team will produce regular monthly written reports which will be distributed by the BPT International Office. These will include descriptions of NGOs and observations of how political developments affect the NGOs.

Balkan Peace Team's Increased Financial Needs

To carry out this new program, the BPT-FRY team's monthly expense budget has almost doubled. The increased travel, a new flat in Macedonia, increased communication costs and greater insurance coverage for the volunteers are just a few of the new expenses. Balkan Peace Team must raise 36, 000 DM over the regular budget. The full expense budget for the BPT-FRY project during this five-month period (May-September) is 71,000 DM. We are turning for support in this effort to individuals and groups throughout Europe and the USA who find our work valuable and who are concerned about breaking the cycle of violence in Kosovo and Serbia. A detailed budget is available on request.

NGO and peace researchers have commented that Balkan Peace Team carries out an extraordinary amount of work given our small number of volunteers and our limited budget. We are confident that the funds we must raise are a small and effective investment in valuable work.

Closing Words from a Kosovo Human Rights Activist

Perhaps the best evaluation of Balkan Peace Team's work comes from the Albanian and Serbian activists in the region. Ymer Jaka, who has been in the leadership of the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, based in Prishtina, said in a recent speech in Paris, that "if reconciliation is going to happen, the work of the Balkan Peace Team must continue and be strengthened. "
Balkan Peace Team, Ringstr. 9a, D-32427 Minden, Germany Tel: 49-571-20776, Email: