Context: Conflict
Start date: 05/04/1999
End date: 05/07/1999
Areas of intervention : 2 refugee camps

  • Stenkovac
  • Brazda

Activities: Humanitarian calling operations



65,000 calls offered

Kosovo Crisis - Refugees in Macedonia

Publication date: Apr 05, 1999 12:00 AM
Last modication date: Jul 10, 2019 12:08 PM
1999
Between 1998 and 1999, several tens of thousands of Kosovars crossed the border to seek refuge in Macedonia while waiting for the end of the conflict. TSF helped these refugees by allowing them to make their first call following their forced exile.

Context

The Kosovo war began on 6th March 1998 and ended on 10th June 1999. Conflicts took place in the territory of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, pitting the Yugoslav Army against the Kosovo Liberation Army and NATO. Kosovo had 1.9 million inhabitants in 1991, including more than 1.8 million ethnic Albanians. Since March 1998, 981,000 people have fled the country or have been deported. Kosovo refugees have taken refuge in neighboring countries - Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia.

In Macedonia, a total of 248,400 refugees from Kosovo crossed the border. Tens of thousands had been stranded for several months in the camps of Stenkovac and Brazda, which were initially transit camps designed to accommodate just a few hundred people. Refugees would arrive daily by their hundreds. They could stay from anywhere between one day to several days or weeks waiting for a transfer to another camp, a host family or a departure to France, Germany, Great Britain or Canada.

Telecoms at the heart of humanitarian aid

On 5th April 1999, as soon as the first refugees arrived in the Stenkovac camp, Télécoms Sans Frontières was operational with a satellite line. The French army had just arrived and proceeded to install the camp. At this stage, the first contact was made with refugees who had started to arrive from Blace (Kosovo/Macedonia border).

Three members of the organisation were present to allow refugees to make their first call since having left Kosovo. Soon, a long, silent queue formed spontaneously. People overcome with pain and fatigue gained a glimmer of hope in their eyes at the idea of reaching a member of their family. These people, who had no passport and no money, had hidden in their clothes a small piece of paper, often crumpled and sometimes illegible, with a telephone number written on it. This was our proof that communication is a vital humanitarian need.

The concept is simple: every refugee has between 1 and 1.5 minutes to call their family abroad, give them the number of our satellite phone and the family calls them back immediately. The following day it had become almost impossible to issue a single call, because TSF’s satellite line number had circulated throughout all of the Kosovar communities around the world, and calls were flooding in permanently.

Faced with such a high demand, TSF expands its activity thanks to its partners

The world’s journalists immediately understood the originality and the importance of TSF’s action. The media impact was such that the private sector quickly rallied around TSF. Five days after our arrival, TSF received two satellite phones sent by France Telecom and two others made available by Inmarsat. Faced with the 15,000 refugees who made up the camp at this time and thanks to the international mobilization, Télécoms Sans Frontières decided to continue its mission, initially planned for just ten days. Simultaneously, France Telecom and Inmarsat offered TSF free communications for two weeks.

From here on in, two satellite telephones were permanently in transmission, the other three having been assigned to the reception of calls. In response to the demand, the TSF team worked 7 days a week, up to 14 hours a day. Spontaneously, refugees came to offer their help to TSF.

Telephone conversations translated by our interpreters, spoke of the drama and all the horrors experienced by these populations:

"I'm alive! I'm in Stenkovac, I do not know where the others are, help me!!

The population of the camp grew from day to day, with capacity ranging from 15,000 to 18,000. A "telephone chain" was set up where each person who received a call would communicate to his correspondent a number to contact a refugee in the camp. Thus, people were called without directly having to reach out to their families. From every corner of the world, hundreds of calls were made every day thanks to word of mouth in international Kosovar communities. TSF’s five telephones of TSF were more and more inaccessible, the network saturated, with populations becoming sometimes impatient. But each refugee, sometimes at the cost of hours of patience, was able to give news to their relatives living abroad. The urgency was dealt with, even if a long work remained to be done.

TSF extends presence thanks to supplementary funding

TSF's action caught the attention of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the end of April, the Department of Humanitarian Action of the Ministry contacted the association in order to request that it sustain its action in the field. From here on in, there were 15 satellite telephones that operated continuously in response to the needs of the 23,000 refugees. Behind each device, a volunteer from the camp picked up the calls and called the people concerned by loudspeaker.

Telecommunications to help restore family ties

TSF was contacted by Deutsche Welle, a German radio station that broadcasted in Albanian. Every day, TSF faxed messages from refugees in the camp. This information was then disseminated throughout Germany via Deutsche Welle. Nearly 80% of the refugees had family in Germany, and the action of Deutsche Welle and TSF provided considerable relief for the Kosovar community living in Germany.

TSF has set up faxes in order to receive information for the population. These faxes enabled refugees to receive letters and administrative documents that were vital for a possible departure to another country. Without any document certifying their identity, refugees could only rely on their families living abroad. They alone could provide them with a certificate of accommodation, a birth certificate, a letter of recommendation, etc. TSF was the only organisation able to provide this service. It was, for all, the only door open to families being reunited, the last chance for a departure to Germany, France, and Canada.

Simultaneously, Radio France International's echoed this action in France. Every day, RFI sent a message on one of the TSF phones, equipped with loudspeakers. The message contained information about families looking for their loved ones. This report, about 20 minutes long, was broadcast at a fixed time to the population of the Stenkovac camp. The transmission was recorded by TSF, who then went to the Brazda camp to broadcast the same message. This operation allowed dozens of families to hear from their loved ones. TSF was the only link with the world for decimated and imprisoned populations in the camps.

TSF ended its work with Kosovar refugees on 5 July 1999. 65,000 calls were made during the three months of its action. Beyond allowing people to reconnect with their families and loved ones or to facilitate their administrative procedures, access to telecommunications above all allowed refugees to regain hope.

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