NYT - November 2, 1999

Kosovo Aid Groups Fall Short as Winter Nears


STUDENCANE, Yugoslavia -- A damp, heavy fog already envelops Kosovo daily, and with winter just a few weeks away, the United Nations and myriad relief organizations are failing to meet the expectations of the hundreds of thousands of homeless Albanians.

Although aid agencies have been trying to prepare for winter since June, when NATO's bombing war ended and Kosovo's Albanians streamed back into their ruined province from neighboring Albania and Macedonia, a European Union commission survey says about 300,000 people "face the possibility of winter without adequate accommodation."

Hanife Gega and her family of 12 are living in a tent in their garden beside the burned-out shell of their house. The tent is where they will spend the winter. Despite the United Nations promises that every family in Kosovo will have a dry room for the winter, many families, the Gegas included, will be camping outside.

One Gega family member is Zejnije, 27, who is expecting a child any day now. Her husband was killed in the war, and she is left with two small children and one more on the way. She seems sad and worried, and wears a constant frown. She will live in the tent, along with her baby, as soon as she returns from the maternity hospital, she said, adding, "We will do with whatever they give us."

Their house, like many in the village of Studencane, in southern Kosovo, was burned with such ferocity that aid organizations have categorized it as fifth class -- irreparable and fit only for demolition. Relief workers have ruled out rebuilding such houses this year and are concentrating only on partly damaged ones that can be fixed quickly. In the meantime, the family has been given a large green tent made of rubberized canvas, which can ward off only some of the cold weather.

"Shelter is by far our most acute problem in the village," said Hamzi Gega, 47, Mrs. Gega's brother. Grabbing folds of the canvas tent in his hand, he says: "It's not enough; it's not good for winter. We get 80 centimeters of snow in this courtyard."

"Winter is not going to be easy," agreed Peter Kessler, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency in Kosovo.

Studencane, lying among the foothills of Kosovo's southern range of mountains, is just one of hundreds of villages that were shelled and then torched by Serbian forces during their yearlong rampage to root out the Kosovo Liberation Army, which was fighting Serbian rule. Some 80 percent of the buildings here were destroyed.

The upper part of the village is a jumble of burned walls and rubble, dotted with a patchwork with bright blue United Nations tarpaulins and white canvas tents among the debris. According to Gega, of 1,618 houses in the village, only 13 are habitable. Only a few new roofs have emerged amid the mess.

Some 120,000 houses -- about half the homesteads of Kosovo -- have been damaged in some way, aid organizations estimate. But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is coordinating the relief effort, says it will be able to repair only 50,000 of those houses this winter, and even that task has them at full stretch.

The United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the European Union's relief agency, ECHO, are responsible, together with the United Nations refugee agency, for Kosovo's multimillion dollar shelter program. Each agency has been dogged with criticism for short-sightedness and delays, especially in the local press.

In the village of Zociste, just a few miles west of Studencane, every house seems to have been scorched, including the 14th-century Serbian monastery at the top of the village. Amid such devastation, villagers expressed frustration at how slow the aid is in coming.

"I have only half the roof tiles I need and no wood," said Malush Shala, a retired postman. "They keep saying: 'In 10 days, in 10 days.' If I had the money myself, I could finish it in eight."

Hedije Kabashi, 36, mother of four, did not wait for the aid organizations. Her father stripped the roof off his house in another village and used it to build her a new roof, providing her with at least one dry room for the family of nine. Last week, an Italian organization brought the materials for a roof for a second room.

The aid agencies talk of what they are achieving: Nearly 30,000 shelter kits have been distributed, and some 7,000 all-weather tents and several hundred prefabricated houses have been brought in. Kosovo residents have received about 11,000 stoves, and Monday a transport plane flew into Pristina, bringing 60 tons of clothing for women and children.

The housing assistance given so far represents only a sliver of what the aid organizations set out to do. Less than half of the emergency roofing kits have gone out to villages, and only 1,500 of the planned 12,000 kits of heavy-duty housing materials. The United Nations refugee agency has distributed only a third of its beams and heavy plastic. The United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance has yet to distribute any heavy-duty kits, and is only now bringing the lumber into Kosovo.

Kessler, of the United Nations agency, blamed the sheer logistical difficulty of bringing so much material into Kosovo, an impoverished region even before the war and now so destroyed that everything has to be imported. With Kosovo's main road and rail links through Serbia and Montenegro closed, and neighboring Albania possibly even poorer than Kosovo, everything has had to be shipped through a single narrow border post from Macedonia. Competing with NATO military convoys, returning refugees and all the province's commercial traffic, aid trucks stand backed up for a mile and can be stuck at customs for up to six days.

The United Nations agency has finally managed to bring in everything it needs, Kessler said, but is now battling to get goods out of warehouses and to the villages before mud roads become impassable.

The agency is no longer talking of housing people before the onset of winter, but "during the winter months." Kessler said: "There is no cutoff date for this. People will be working on their houses all winter."

Many of the 300,000 homeless are going to have to fend for themselves. "We are telling people that relatives are going to have to support each other, neighbors are going to have to take people in, as they have done before," he said. "If people do, everyone will get through the winter."

Tens of thousands of villagers have swarmed into Pristina, Kosovo's capital, and other towns, taking over the abandoned homes of Serbs and Gypsies who have fled the province, or staying with relatives. Local journalists estimate that the population of Pristina has swelled to double the prewar population, and may be as high as 400,000.

For the most vulnerable -- the old, young and sick who cannot survive the winter in tents -- there will be about 11,000 places in buildings like sports halls or community centers in main towns, the United Nations agency says.

Yet not everyone likes the idea of moving again. Hanife Gega, who fled to Albania during the war, says she cannot rely on her neighbors since they all are in tents too. But asked if she would leave to go to a collective center, she said no.

"The problem is I cannot turn my back on this place," she said. "We have to stay here -- if only we had the chance to rebuild."