November 15, 1999

NYT - Border Backup Leaves Miles of Aid Waiting Idly Outside Kosovo


BLACE, Macedonia -- Trucks are backed up for miles on either side of this narrow border post, blocked in a chaotic jam that is choking the main gateway into Kosovo for vital supplies of aid. The situation is a growing concern for U.N. officials and aid workers who want to feed and shelter thousands of homeless residents of the province this winter.

While aid workers blame the Macedonian government for slowing customs and other procedures, border officials and Western diplomats in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, said the sheer volume of traffic and the lack of facilities had overwhelmed the local authorities.

"Whatever the motives, this came rather abruptly," Peter Kessler, the spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, told reporters after the blockage built up this past week. "It has created havoc both for the delivery of food aid and for the delivery of shelter supplies."

Other aid officials say they have been concerned for weeks or months about the blockage of aid at Blace, where, during the Kosovo war, hundreds of thousands of fleeing Kosovo Albanians were caught in a squalid camp in no man's land while Macedonia considered whether to let them in.

Today, the largest line is for traffic trying to enter Kosovo. NATO military trucks and jeeps jostle for a place in line with aid convoys bearing everything from flour and cooking oil to building timber and cement. Civilians are bringing in heaps of belongings, bedding and clothes, trying to replace their household goods lost in the war.

Behind them stand over 10 miles of commercial trucks, carrying everything a ruined country needs: plastic buckets, furniture, daily staples.

Drivers said they were used to delays, but something went more seriously wrong over the past week. A convoy of 46 World Food Program trucks had been stuck at the border for well over a week. "Usually it takes just 24 hours to cross the border," said Besir Elmazi, 23, who was driving one of the trucks in the convoy from the Greek port of Salonika.

Elmazi said the drivers told the border guards they were carrying aid and received the reply, "That does not concern us."

As the truck drivers stood on the road, scores of NATO vehicles bypassed their line. The NATO traffic, mostly carrying building materials and supplies for military bases in Kosovo, takes precedence. But even this NATO convoy had been waiting five hours, some of the soldiers said.

On the other side of the border, some 200 trucks leaving Kosovo were backed up for 2 miles. Many were empty after delivering goods. The drivers blamed the Macedonian border controls, but said it was not unusual to wait two days at the border.

Macedonian police officials denied holding up any traffic on purpose and laid the blame on U.N. customs and border controls, which are now operating on the Kosovo side. "The delay is because on the other side they are taking customs dues," said a spokesman at the Macedonian Interior Ministry in Skopje."They cannot manage the volume, and we cannot let all the trucks go through to the other side while they are not ready."

Diplomats say the chaos has many causes. The Macedonians are poorly equipped, with few computers and only two telephone lines. The narrow mountain road has only two lanes and frequently becomes blocked. NATO had a bypass road built to relieve the main border post, but has now ruled it substandard and cannot use it for heavy vehicles.

U.N. customs officials in Kosovo have admitted they are having difficulty processing incoming traffic quickly enough. They have complained of frictions between Macedonian border guards and the Greek contingent of the NATO force in charge of the Kosovo side of the border -- apparently a reflection of longstanding Greek-Macedonian suspicion and enmity.

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