Bitter Aftermath

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The first snows have dusted the mountain tops above his farm near the Kosovo border with Montenegro, and Isuf Ali Qorraj is worried. Since returning from a refugee camp in Albania four months ago, the 63-year-old father of 11 has been sleeping on the bare earth beneath a canvas roof. His proud two-story home, once the finest in the village, was shelled into a ruin by Serb artillery and for the first time in half a century Qorraj is not sure how he will make it through the winter.

An aid agency left some building supplies a few weeks ago, but not enough to winterize the family's sheep barn. "It's been very cold for four nights," he says, stooped over a thick wooden staff and shaking his head. "We have promises, but no deeds." Across Kosovo, hundreds of thousands of men and women are facing a similar uncertainty. Half a million, by some estimates, do not know where in Kosovo they will find shelter this winter. Many are living in areas where temperatures drop to -25°C. "If they stay in their villages," says a medical student in Pristina, "they will die."

Despite the scale of the United Nations operation--one of the largest ever--now underway in Kosovo, it is badly behind schedule. With only weeks to go before the deep chill of December, just over half of the improvised "shelter kits" that the U.N. refugee agency and other groups are distributing to rural areas have reached their intended beneficiaries. The U.S. foreign disaster assistance group, OFDA, says it has identified an urgent need for nearly 8,000 new roofs, but only 500 or so have been completed, mostly in urban areas. Reasons vary from the scale of wartime devastation to transportation bottlenecks and poor coordination among aid groups. But officials now agree that if enough rural homes in particular are not reached in the next two weeks the rush to cities will begin. And there the problems could be worse. "The race is on," says Peter Kessler of the U.N. refugee agency, U.N.H.C.R.

While a full-fledged humanitarian crisis--on the scale of Angola or Sierra Leone--is unlikely, a failure of the international community would leave hundreds of thousands in dangerously exposed or overcrowded conditions. It would also undermine confidence in the new U.N.-led government. As the first test of the effectiveness of the peacetime administration in Kosovo, the effort is being watched by Kosovars as an indication of their new leaders' competence and political will. "We're at a critical stage where the U.N. is trying to establish its credibility as a viable government," says Marcus Pucnik, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group in Pristina. "If it loses the hearts and minds of Albanians, it might as well leave."

The crash late last week of a World Food Programme flight returning 21 relief workers and U.N. employees to Pristina underscores just how tough the job can be. The ATR-42 prop plane came down on a mountainside near the village of Slakovce some 40 km north of the Kosovo capital. There were no survivors. Winters have always been bitter in this part of the Balkans, with damp winds whipping down from Serbia and snow whistling across the Kosovo plain, but this year things look particularly bleak. During the war and its aftermath, more than 100,000 homes, of an estimated 360,000 in the province, were burned or blown up. Bridges lie crumpled in river beds; unexploded cluster bombs and mines litter the countryside. Looting and deliberate sabotage further crippled a decrepit infrastructure. Of 55 garbage trucks that worked the streets of Pristina before the war, 50 were hijacked back to Serbia and the remaining five torched. Cities, packed with returning refugees, are a shambles. Sewage lies 2 m deep on the cellar floors of some apartment buildings.

The biggest problem is electricity. Pristina, like most of Kosovo, relies for much of its power on a rusting hulk of a coal-burning generation facility on the outskirts of the city. Even before the war these two plants were monuments to statist neglect. But when Serbian managers fled after the bombing they took with them critical tools, spare parts, conveyor belt machinery, even heavy bulldozers--and precious expertise. Today, mostly untrained Albanian workers are at the controls, toiling in poorly lit yards, waiting to get paid by the U.N. Output, as a result, is one third of the prewar level. That leaves Pristina in the dark many evenings and without power most of the day. This winter, moreover, demand is expected to quadruple. "It's a mess," said one senior Western diplomat. "The problems are monstrous."

They are also impossible to predict. In a devilish cycle brought on by the war, the number of fires in the city has doubled in the past month. More and more residents are relying on electric space heaters--when the power is on--to ward off the chill, since larger apartment block boilers were spiked by retreating Serbs. Such heaters are serious fire hazards. The British military commander for the zone warns that fires caused by space heaters will become a major peril in coming months. When a blaze erupted at one of the commander's own contingent's living quarters last month, the city's only two fire engine crews gamely showed up, unfurled their hoses and cranked on the spigot. Nothing came out. Attempts to reach a local engineer to activate an emergency water supply failed because the mobile phone network was jammed. The complex burned to the ground.

International agencies are throwing what they can at the problems. U.N.H.C.R. now regularly dispatches helicopters to remote mountain villages to "pre-position" food for winter. Soldiers have traded rifles for hammers to erect roofs and reconstruct bridges. Aid workers, including those from Nobel laureate Medecins Sans Frontières, are setting aside their usual job of providing emergency medical care to put up new houses as a preventive measure against respiratory disease. Canada this month announced a $68 million program to pay for mine clearing, training of police officers and repairs to schools. Some 15,000 tons of lumber are being shipped to the province.

But the rush is creating its own troubles. On either side of the main border post with Macedonia, transport trucks snake back 6 km, their engines shut down, drivers asleep in the back, waiting up to 10 days to clear both Macedonian and U.N. customs. Downed bridges are causing epic traffic snarls. In addition, several military contingents and aid agencies appear more eager to provide freelance assistance to their own areas rather than submit to U.N. or other coordination, according to Kimberly Maynard, head of the U.S. relief program for OFDA. "It's a major problem," she says. "People are falling through the cracks." The U.N. is urging Kosovars to "show solidarity" and share their temporary shelter with at least two other families. A U.S.-sponsored newspaper and radio campaign admonishes: "Help us help you!" and "Be patient. It will come."

Kosovars, watching the hubbub, are beginning to worry. Awed by the West's military muscle, many are wondering about its peacetime prowess. "The dream of international help is doomed," grumbled a recent headline in the independent daily newspaper Koha Ditore. The U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, noted the souring relations between Kosovars and the U.N. community. During a recent visit he said that the U.N. was in danger of being viewed as an "occupation force." In the longer term, that could jeopardize efforts to re-establish democratic institutions in the province. But for now, the danger is more immediate. As snow clouds gather, there is comfort only in this: most Kosovars have faced grave, bone-chilling hardship before, and this year they are doing it in peace.

With reporting by Anthee Carassava/Pristina