Irish Times - Monday, November 08, 1999

Winter shelter a priority for returned refugees

As Kosovo prepares for winter, Patrick Smyth spent last week travelling through the busy but tense country

KOSOVO: The thick, cold blanket of morning mist takes longer each day to lift. Winter is coming to Kosovo, a hard cold winter, for which the devastated country is scrambling to prepare.

The roads are packed, chaotic, evidence of the return of nearly a million refugees from abroad, and huge quantities of building materials are on the move. Already bright new red roofs pepper the countryside between the scorched shells of homes burned beyond repair.

The UN has set a target of one dry, warm room for every family of ten before the winter and is desperately distributing shelter and roofing kits before the cold sets in. Half the kits are already allocated, but as many as 12,000 to 13,000 families will still spend the winter in tents, the UNHCR says. An estimated 100,000 houses were damaged, half of them destroyed.

In the towns, shops, cafes, and street stalls everywhere there is evidence of the explosion of trade and home building, and the blossoming black market: white goods shops, TV shops, repair shops for the thousands of stolen cars that have made their way here, fresh vegetable stalls.

Satellite dishes are sprouting like mushrooms. Everything can be had, but at a price. And only if you are not Serb.

The latter - between 50,000 an 100,000 of them depending on whom you talk to - live in varying degrees of imprisonment. In overcrowded Pristina, whose prewar population of 150,000 has swollen to 500,000, that means the confines of a flat; in Mitrovica to the north, the few grim streets of a ghetto surrounded by a hostile population; in the countryside, a village or a series of villages and fields, watched over by international troops from Kfor.

In Pec, pressed up against the formidable mountains that mark the border with Montenegro, the Patriarchate in its walled compound with flowered garden and three exquisite churches, dating back to the 12th century, is a guarded oasis for the handful of Serbs left in a town among the most damaged by their compatriots.

Dobrida Safiria, a feisty 69year-old, is determined to stay on but tells bitterly how she has just returned from an expedition to save the relics of a local church. When they arrived it was burning, its graves desecrated.

Father Petar, like the Orthodox Church, is scathing about the Milosevic regime and those Serbs who "have lost faith in God".

"But we ask you to do all you can to tell the world that the war is not a one-off but a continuation of history," he says. "I believe the world will come to see the Serb plight as it did the Albanians'."

Here, as elsewhere, attacks on the Serbs are down, although intimidation is pervasive and a week ago a convoy of Serb refugees leaving for abroad was ambushed by angry crowds. Seventeen were injured before being rescued by Italian peace keepers.

In Mitrovica, scene of serious street clashes only weeks ago, the flashpoint bridge is quiet these days. Two thousand people now cross it every day, but the peace between the city's 14,000 Serbs and 90,000 Albanians is a cold, tense peace.

Reported serious crime is dramatically down throughout the country. Incidents of looting and arson have fallen from 290 and 280 a week in late June and early July to 14 and 12 in the last two weeks. Killings and kidnappings have also fallen off, although less steeply, from dozens to about five of each over the same period.

But fear is endemic in the minority communities, whose condition an OSCE report last week described as "perilous". And not only for the hated Serbs, but also the Roma Gypsies, seen as collaborators, and the substantial numbers of Slavic Muslims who share the Serb language if not their ideology.

Speaking Serbo-Croat in public can get you killed, as an international worker who innocently answered a question in the street discovered to his cost.

In a sprawling estate of flat complexes in the east of Pristina, known to its British guardians as "Sunny Hill", the Royal Green Jackets have established one of their many "point" protection bases to guard 12 local Serb families.

A platoon is based here permanently in a small dark flat whose previous inhabitant left so fast he abandoned the family photos that testify to the pride he had in his uniform.

From here they watch the comings and goings on the estate and patrol its rubbish-strewn streets.

Each Serb family is visited at least weekly and has the platoon's phone number. A code word will bring help within minutes, although Cpl Davis Rockliffe admits that they are often too late to stop another beating. Or worse.

A week ago nearby an 80-yearold man was thrown through the window of a flat to his death by new "tenants". Such violent disputes over property, as the winter closes in, are also increasingly intra-Albanian, the soldiers report.

Life on "Sunny Hill" is much like that elsewhere in the city for its Serbs, prisoners in their homes. Shopping and school are impossible. Almost all are dependent on humanitarian aid and individual protection. Phone har ass ment is routine. In Pristina, the OSCE says, as few as 400 to 600 Serbs remain, scattered throughout the city, half the figure suggested by Kfor, but barely 5 per cent of a few months ago.

In well-protected rural enclaves south and west of the city, in the towns of Gracanica and Kosovo Polje, up to 20,000 Serbs enjoy greater freedom of movement, but trips by bus to the capital must be done under Kfor escort and few are able to earn a living.

In the US eastern zone around Gnjilane there are even reports of significant returns from those who fled to Serbia, up to 30,000, according to the commander of the British battalion, Brig Peter Pearson. And about 10,000 appear to have moved north from the inhospitable Prizren area, effectively "ethnically cleansed" of its 30,000 Serbs.

Have Serbs any future in this country, we asked repeatedly? No, say most Albanians. In principle, yes, say Kfor spokesmen, "that is why we are here".

But the answer on the ground varies across the country. The German head of civil-military cooperation in the south, Lieut Col Heinz-Peter Albrecht, echoes the private views of many military personnel in the west of the country. "Personally I can't believe they will come back. I would also leave."

Yet a few miles north in Suva Reka the Austrian battalion commander, Lieut Col Hans Tomaschitz, reports that the local municipality wants to see returns. Many Serbs, in what was a mixed community, are well regarded and remembered for having saved Albanian lives and property, he says. "I'm sure they will come back. This is their home."

Few anticipate many more will come back this side of the winter, but the consolidation of this cold, segregated coexistence could see significant returns in the spring, if only because Kosovo's Serbs are finding Belgrade almost as inhospitable.

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