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Wednesday, April 28, 1999 Published at 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK

World: Europe

Kosovo aid: When your help is a problem

The harrowing face of war: Seen in homes around the world

By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani

The young boy has a shock of short blonde hair, a bright yellow jumper, a face that should be full of fun.

Kosovo: Special Report
Instead, he is slumped near bodies, some of them badly burnt, many so badly disfigured it is hard to tell whether they are alive or dead.

The photograph of this child may become one of the defining images of the Kosovo conflict - it may even live in the mind of the Nato pilot who mistakenly bombed the child's refugee convoy.

Harrowing images like this have a major impact on the public consciousness and their willingness to help aid agencies.

Many want to make donations, give clothing or food and there is always a smaller group of people who want to do more, perhaps adopt a child or run convoys.

But what kind of action is best if ordinary people really want to help?

'I want to help'

BBC News Online has received at least 24,000 e-mails since the start of the Kosovo conflict.

Many have spoken of their horror as they have seen events unfold.

[ image:  ]
Geoffrey Shaw, from Winnipeg in Canada, wrote: "Do you know who that young (blond-haired) boy is?

"Has anyone, regardless of the stupidity and murder on all sides in this insane conflict bothered to help that boy? If not, I want to."

Another sent the BBC comprehensive plans to set up a Website to link missing children with their families.

The BBC's Rageh Omaar watches soldiers deliver toys to refugees
And George Kickliter, a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, offered to employ refugees in Florida.

"I am a Vietnam veteran," he told News Online. "I flew combat missions every day, I saw four wingmen shot down.

"I feel moved by what I see happening.

"These are good people and there are a need for them in the USA. I don't want to see these people caged behind wire in camps."

Many people want to provide comfort.

Teddies for tragedies

A UK magazine, Sewing World, is planning to call on its 70,000 readers to make soft toys for Kosovo, arguing that they can bring great comfort to children.

[ image: Cute - but essential for the Balkans?]
Cute - but essential for the Balkans?
"When we have done this before we had an amazing response," said editor Wendy Gardiner.

"We received 1,000 teddies. At first we put them around the office because they were so cute. Then we had to stuff them into sacks to get them shipped out.

"And that's where we are stumbling now.

We want to give them to the agencies, we are not large enough to transport them ourselves."

The only problem is, this is not the kind of gesture the aid agencies want.

Cash for essentials

"When someone makes you an offer of help, sometimes you have to say no," said Brian Gray of the American Red Cross.

"We have all learned over time that some of these well meaning things pile up on docks."

[ image: Food and shelter needed: Not removal to another country]
Food and shelter needed: Not removal to another country
The American Red Cross has so far raised $13.4m, including its first ever $1m through Internet donations. Total US donations to all agencies have reached at least $50m.

In an emergency situation, agencies say they want cash - lots of it and fast.

They can then go to their close network of supplier companies, or work with local partnerships, to buy essential food, shelter and medication.

Bought regionally and in bulk, it reduces the costs, cuts out transport and also benefits the local economy.

Like many organisations, the American Red Cross has been given clothes and food it cannot use.

[ image:  ]
Mr Gray said: "We are also dealing with cultural issues, people who don't eat pork, people whose clothing requirements are different because, for instance, women keep their arms covered.

"We cannot send tank tops (short-sleeved sweaters) that we would have used for Hurricane Mitch in Honduras to Kosovo."

In the UK, £24.5m ($39.5m) has so far been donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee, the umbrella body for 12 leading British charities.

Staff have politely deflected some offers.

"People have often collected up old clothes which end up unuseable," said Scott Swinton of the DEC.

"The logistics of getting these things to Kosovo are very difficult. Some of the things that people suggest are perhaps donations for further down the road."

Angel of Mostar

Agencies also warn individuals against running their own convoys.

[ image: 'Angel of Mostar': Sally Becker criticised]
'Angel of Mostar': Sally Becker criticised
One celebrated case is Sally Becker, the so-called Angel of Mostar who came to fame through her single-minded campaign to deliver aid to the Bosnian town.

She came under criticism at the time from aid agencies worried that her methods could upset their own carefully negotiated agreements with various factions.

Later, the UK Foreign Office warned Ms Becker and her 26 volunteers not to run a convoy into Bajram Curri, northern Albania, where she was subsequently shot and wounded.

And in July 1998 Serb authorities jailed her for illegally crossing the Albanian-Yugoslav border.

DIY convoys have also come unstuck at borders, with agencies reporting trucks being hijacked by bandits or emptied of goods.

Orphaned or lost?

Aid agencies are also very concerned by frequent attempts to adopt, foster or remove children to western nations.

[ image:  ]
Most agencies support removal of refugees to third countries only in very specific situations, such as a medical emergency, or with guarantees that a large group will stay together.

Save the Children says inter-country adoption is increasingly a movement "driven by the need of childless couples in the west".

It often involves "flagrant violations" of rights and can have a long-term impact on the child's cultural and racial identity, the charity says.

"We are not in favour of any refugee adoption," said a spokesman for the charity. "The task is to trace their families and to reunite them."

Scott Swinton of the DEC added: "These families have already suffered immense trauma. If some of them are sent abroad, it will be even more difficult to rebuild their lives."

There will still be many people who want to do more but aid agencies have a simple answer - raise more money and donate it to those who can put it to good use in the field.

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