Refugees Face Long Wait Before Heading Home

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Kosovo's refugees are unlikely to be home by Christmas, or even by Ramadaan (which most of them celebrate) next February or March. Even if all sides agree quickly to a peace deal that allows for their return, the logistics of reversing the Serbs' "ethnic cleansing" are mammoth. President Clinton met ethnic Albanian refugees in Germany Thursday and vowed to guarantee their return. But the very fact of those refugees' being in Germany -- and in New Jersey -- underscores the effectiveness of Milosevic's depopulation of the region despite seven weeks of NATO bombing. So even as President Clinton promised that the refugees would "go home in peace and freedom," U.N. humanitarian officials coordinating relief efforts urged Western leaders to make preparations for supporting the refugees in Macedonia and Albania through a bitter Balkan winter.

"Even if Milosevic backs off now and begins withdrawing his forces, that will take some time and many other problems remain to be solved before the refugees can return," says TIME Central Europe reporter Dejan Anastasijevic. Redeploying the 40,000 Serb troops from the ravaged province where food and fuel are in short supply and NATO has effectively destroyed many transport routes will take some time, as will the assembly and deployment of an international force. "The refugees certainly won't return while Serbian forces are still around," says Anastasijevic. Rebuilding infrastructure damaged by the war to allow for the orderly movement of some 600,000 refugees back to their villages will take many months, and the political tensions in Kosovo that would likely remain unresolved in any peace deal may make many reluctant to rush home so soon after their traumatic flight. But even then, most will return as soon as possible. "The refugees are mostly rural people," says Anastasijevic. "They're far too attached to their land to consider settling anywhere else."

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