A day in the life of Europe’s largest refugee camp
By Benoist Matsha-Carpentier in Montenegro
1999, Kosovo. The country has been in war for several years and recent attacks in the countryside have forced thousands of people to flee their country, seeking refuge in what was still at the time the country of Serbia and Montenegro.
July 24th 2012, Camp Konic I, Montenegro. It’s 5am, the sun is not out yet but people are running out of their house shouting, crying and in shock. The barracks where they have been living in since they escaped Kosovo 13 years earlier are all burning. The whole camp is ablaze. Everything to the last of their belongings is transformed into ash and smoke.
Camp Konic was built in 1999 when Montenegro received an influx of refugees from Kosovo. Initially tents were erected to respond to the emergency, but wooden barracks were soon built to host a population, which eventually reached more than 1,500 people. It is now the biggest refugee camp left in the Balkan region.
The Red Cross of Montenegro took charge of the camp management in 2003 and has been running activities inside the camp including education, vocational training, food distribution and supply of relief items when needed.
Mansour, the Red Cross camp manager talks about about this fire as the worse moment of his long career. “Everything was burning. We have been so lucky that no-one was injured or killed.”
Since July 24th, the government, the Red Cross and its local partner are working around the clock to find better shelter for these 150 families before the winter comes.
With the financial help of several partners, 213 containers, equipped with basic supplies such as a small heater, a fridge and a stove are being installed where the barracks had burned.
Remzija, 63, has not yet received her container. She lives with 13 members of her families and should receive three containers. “This is too small for all of us,” she says. “But we will be better in the container than in the tents, especially now that the winter is coming. What we need is jobs for our children so they can help their families to live. I can’t go back to Kosovo, I have nothing there anymore.”
In the camp, this is the general opinion. Most people want to stay in Montenegro, find a job and be able to help their families.
Since taking responsibility for the camp, the Red Cross has attempted to integrating children into local communities by helping them into public schools. This new generation of refugees – most of whom were born in Montenegro – is seeking for a change and a better future.
Lejla was nine months old when she arrived in the camp. She went to school for six years but couldn’t continue. She is now very involved in the community and helps to run workshops on violence prevention with the Red Cross.
Like most of the people who were living in the camp during the fire, Lejla has lost all her papers which makes it impossible for her to think about moving anywhere. “I want to go abroad,” she says. “One of my brothers lives in Germany, so I hope I will be able to join him one day. I want to finish my studies and help children.”
With luck, Lejla will be able to achieve her dream soon as the government is working on developing a special status for the refugees from Kosovo, giving them residency permit which could open a door to new opportunities.
For now, the families wait for the containers that will give them a roof over their heads for the winter.