ROME - The United Nations World Food Programme announced today the end of its operation in Serbia and Montenegro, proclaiming the food emergency there over. Having already closed its office in Podgorica on 29 February, the relief organisation will officially close its office in Belgrade on 31 March.
At the peak of its operation in 1999-2000, WFP was assisting some 700,000 beneficiaries of whom half were refugees from Bosnia and Croatia and the other half local social cases, including displaced people from Kosovo. The agency's food rations have consisted of wheat, sugar, salt, oil, canned meat and pulses.
This month WPF is feeding 54,655 of the most vulnerable in Serbia and Montenegro, before handing over the caseload to the government and UNHCR.
"We feel that the time is now right to leave. We had already prolonged the operation for two years to make sure that the country was indeed getting back on its feet," explained Lars Bjorkman, WFP's Country Director in Serbia and Montenegro, as the last food distributions took place in Belgrade this week.
WFP started its emergency operation in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in late 1992 following the first round of armed conflict which led to thousands of people fleeing their homes. By 1999, there were over 700,000 refugees and an additional 220,000 displaced people from Kosovo who had sought safety in Serbia and Montenegro.
"I remember there were columns of refugees stretching as far as the eye could see entering Montenegro," recalls Slobodan Kalezic, Secretary General of the Montenegrin Red Cross, which was WFP's local partner throughout the crisis. "It was a sight I will never forget, and I never want to see again," he added.
WFP responded immediately, racing against time to bring food assistance to the frightened, hungry and destitute victims of the conflict, many of whom had fled with only the clothes they were wearing.
With peace returning to the region, some refugees have opted to go back to their former homes in Bosnia and Croatia. Many displaced people and refugees, however, have preferred to integrate into Serbia or Montenegro. According to official statistics, there are currently 273,000 registered refugees and 205,000 displaced people still living in Serbia and Montenegro.
Under these conditions, WFP was able to gradually and systematically start phasing down its operation in 2002. With the final food distribution this month, WFP will assist some 50,000 of the poorest refugees and people in Serbia and Montenegro, many of whom are elderly or handicapped.
As part of its phase-down operation, WFP, along with UNHCR, the Serbian Refugee Commissioner and the Ministry of Social Affairs, helped design a scheme to provide non-food support to remaining poor refugees.
"It's clear that fewer people need food aid. But those who do need it, will be assisted by the government and UNHCR in the future," added Bjorkman. "We leave with the conviction that the refugees will be taken care of," he added.
"There is a political will to help these people," stressed Ozren Tosic, Commissioner for Refugees in Serbia.
During the past 11 years, WFP has provided 400,000 metric tons of food worth over US$205 million thanks to the contribution of donor countries like Japan, United Kingdom, United States, European Community, Canada, Netherlands, Norway Switzerland, Italy and Denmark.
WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency. In 2003 WFP fed nearly 104 million people in 81 countries including most of the world's refugees and internally displaced people.
WFP Global School Feeding Campaign -- As the largest provider of nutritious meals to poor school children, WFP has launched a global campaign aimed at ensuring the world's 300 million undernourished children are educated.
Mia Turner WFP/Cairo
Tel: +202-754-5045 ext 287
Deputy Director Communications
Tel: +1-202-6530010 ext. 1149