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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Albania, Aid Groups Strive to Get IDs for All Refugees

Documents: Most Kosovars had passports, other papers seized by Yugoslav forces. A sense of self is being restored and fraud at camps is cut.

May 13, 1999|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUKES, Albania — It took just a push of a button and a few keystrokes for Lindita Kryziu to officially become a refugee.

Of course, she has held that unhappy distinction since Serbs ordered her and her family from their home in the southern Kosovo village of Retimlje last month and, as a final indignity on her way to Albania, snatched her passport and national identification card.

"I felt like they had taken my identity," said Kryziu, 19. "I had nothing with my name on it, nothing with my picture on it. . . . How would anyone ever know I am who I say I am?"

Now she has proof of her grim new existence as a refugee: a computer-generated identification badge, complete with color photograph, declaring her a resident of the largest of Kukes' encampments for displaced ethnic Albanians.

Kryziu's badge was issued by the government of the United Arab Emirates, which has set up an expansive camp in what was previously a pasture. Operating independently, the Arabs have begun an identification program in Kukes while the Albanian government and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees wrestle with a more ambitious effort scheduled to get underway countrywide next month.

It is for more than a sense of self that authorities are working to undo the work of Yugoslav forces. Registering the refugees, relief workers say, improves the delivery of humanitarian assistance and cuts down on the growing problems of theft and fraud. It also helps reunite families and keeps the bulging, chaotic refugee camps more secure.

"Refugees should be able to say 'Yes, I am a genuine refugee,' " said Ray Wilkinson, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. "Otherwise, everything becomes a free-for-all and everyone becomes a refugee."

Kryziu and other residents of the Arab camp now must flash IDs to enter and exit the fenced-in tent space, as well as to receive meals and other aid.

The lack of documentation has proved a thorny problem when it comes to travel. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries that have provided shelter for refugees--led by Germany, Turkey, Norway and France--have waived requirements for travel documents. But refugees attempting on their own to join family members living overseas have been stymied.

The U.N. refugee agency and the Albanian government recently drafted temporary travel documents to allow family reunification in special cases. But the fledgling program will assist only a small number of the refugees attempting to leave Albania, officials say.

Although the rootless life of a refugee could not be more undesirable, there appear to be many takers when it comes to the food rations, blankets and other aid received by ethnic Albanians who have been driven by Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia.

Aid workers have reported numerous incidents in which non-refugees have stolen supplies meant for the camp dwellers. Others meld into the chaotic distribution lines.

Looking ahead to the refugees' return to Kosovo, authorities anticipate utter chaos if they cannot clarify now who is and is not a Kosovar. Even with the planned identification cards, many ethnic Albanians will have lost property records, marriage licenses and other valuable paperwork.

Because so many refugees are without identification, humanitarian organizations are forced to take most people at their word when it comes to who is entitled to assistance.

But aid workers are eager to control the distribution process by registering, one by one, the more than 400,000 refugees in Albania and more than 200,000 in Macedonia.

Albania's registration process has been spotty to date, hampered by the huge numbers of new arrivals, a lack of organization and the potential threat near the border of shelling by Yugoslav forces.

At the Albanian border, guards jot down the name of each driver who enters and ask for the number of occupants in each wagon or motor vehicle. They issue immigration forms to some new arrivals but frequently run out of the cards.

"Registration has been impossible at the border," said Staffan de Mistura, the Kukes-based relief coordinator for the U.N. refugee agency. "There have been floods of people, and the border is a militarily dangerous area." We've been trying to get them in and move them on as quickly as we can. Now, we have to find them to register them."

The upcoming registration drive, announced this week by the U.N. refugee agency, will begin in Albania with about 70 computerized units--donated by Microsoft, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard--that spit out IDs.

But even with cutting-edge laptops, digital cameras and software, the task will be monumental: Refugees are not limited to organized camps but reside in private homes scattered throughout the Albanian countryside.

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