Canadian observer in Albania angered at plight of refugees

CHRIS WATTIE, The Canadian Press - 12 April 1999

Canadian Brig.-Gen. Michel Maisonneuve drove out to the Albanian border earlier this week to look out over the rugged hills and dense forests of strife-torn Kosovo.

It was the first time he'd seen the embattled province since he and 1,400 other ceasefire verifiers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were evacuated last month in advance of NATO air strikes.

"I could see right across to Prizren (his former headquarters)," Maisonneuve said in a telephone interview Friday from the Albanian capital, Tirana. "It was a bit of an eerie feeling and a bit frustrating too."

That's because the Canadian general has a pretty good idea what's going on in Kosovo.

Maisonneuve, of St-Jerome, Que., is now heading up a team of 70 OSCE observers, including nine fellow Canadians, in Albania to help the impoverished country deal with the disastrous flood of Kosovo refugees that fled across its borders from Serb repression and NATO air strikes.

Maisonneuve said the former truce verifiers in his team have interviewed hundreds of refugees and heard chillingly similar tales of atrocities by Serbian authorities.

"Their stories are pretty much the same: so much so that it's difficult not to believe them," he said. "It's possible there are some exaggerations, but there are too many common threads in what they're telling us.

"They've been through a terrible, terrible ordeal and they're lucky to be alive."

As a military man, Maisonneuve said his gut reaction is to wreak vengeance on the Serbian police and army units he's convinced are committing widespread abuses against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.

"It makes me very, very angry," he said sharply. "I'd love to go in and kick ass. Many of my verifiers are military people and they feel exactly the same way. If they ask us to go in, I'd volunteer in a minute. No question."

But while the air strikes continue and NATO denies that it is considering sending in ground troops, Maisonneuve and his team are focusing on helping the refugees.

The verifiers are performing what he describes as a "liaison and co-ordination function" to help the Albanian government deal with the thousands of Kosovo refugees.

"We're trying to add value to the humanitarian effort without adding to the confusion and believe me there's a lot of confusion," he said. "It's better now than it was, but that's still pretty bad."

NATO said Friday its operation to help relief agencies in Albania cope with the refugee problem will be up and running within a week.

About 8,000 troops will be sent to Albania to operate alongside the United Nations refugee agency, which is working to provide food, water and shelter for the estimated 304,000 Kosovars who have poured across the border into the impoverished country.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said NATO countries have sent 600 tonnes of supplies - including food, water, medicine and tents - to Albania.

And Maisonneuve said the situation has been slowly improving since Serbian authorities sealed off the border with Albania, turning back even more refugees before they could leave Kosovo.

"The flow has stopped, so that's given us a few days to catch up," he said. "And the international aid has started to flow . . . some (refugees) are still in camps but the Albanians have been doing a great job helping them out."

Maisonneuve said after spending more than four months in Kosovo he got to know many of the ethnic Albanians who are now homeless refugees.

"I've met several people I knew in Kosovo in the refugee camps and heard of several others who didn't make it out," he said.

"I know of one young lad that was working for us who's still trapped in Pristina . . . he can't leave his house because the Serb forces are everywhere. Someone was getting e-mails from him up until a couple of days ago, but they've stopped."

The Canadian Press, 1999