Kosovo unprepared for winter

Many people - mostly ethnic Albanians - live in tents without heat.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Ismail Haliti perches on top of his cement-block farmhouse, cobbling together a temporary roof. His nephew Baki, a skinny teenager in sneakers, hands up old boards. Mr. Haliti measures them by eye, saws them to length, and lays them over a small, 6-by-12 foot room with soot-covered walls and no window.

All that remains of his house is walls - four scorched rooms open to the sky. All summer long, the Halitis lived in a canvas tent and a plastic-covered farm wagon while they waited for Western aid workers to help build a new roof. But the help never came.

With winter bearing down, Haliti scrounged boards from a brother-in-law and began to turn his bathroom into a rough shelter. "They were promising a lot, but they didn't give us anything," he says. "Otherwise I would have done it earlier. How can I wait for them now? The winter is coming."

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The war in Kosovo left an estimated 100,000 houses damaged or destroyed and 750,000 people without proper shelter. Now, months after the war ended, cold weather has caught many people unprepared, still living in tents and makeshift shelters, often without heat or warm clothing. Most are ethnic Albanian; the houses of Serbs still living in Kosovo are usually intact.

The United Nations refugee agency hoped to provide each family with at least one warm, dry room by winter. But relief workers say sheltering Kosovars for the winter has required a huge amount of material. And locating and transporting it to Kosovo has been a logistical nightmare. Trucks loaded with lumber have sometimes waited for days to cross the Macedonia-Kosovo border. Lumber, plastic sheeting, and other building materials only began to arrive in Kosovo in sufficient quantities last month. Workers are now rushing to do as much as possible before winter.

"It's a race against time," says John Balazic-Abbott, a construction foreman with the New York-based International Rescue Committee. "We'll be putting roofs on in November, when it's probably snowing. We're still determined to get it done, no matter what."

Workers also blame bureaucratic delay and disorganization among the scores of agencies working here.

But the UN's goal is simply to get Kosovars through the winter, not to rebuild houses. Thousands of families have received emergency repair kits - enough wood and plastic sheeting to enclose a single room. Many have received wood stoves. Lately, aid organizations have begun to build roofs. The UN relief agency also is stockpiling winter tents and preparing emergency shelters.

"I think we will win the battle against winter," says Philippe Lamair, a UN spokesman. "But it will be a struggle."

Many Kosovars are already feeling the cold. In the village of Grastica, in the hills of eastern Kosovo, Mihane Krasniqi sits on a wooden bench in front of her burned house, bundled in a shirt, two sweaters, and a wool coat. The first snow of the year has fallen, and many in her family still sleep in tents.

"The nights are very cold in the tents," she says. "I'm worried a lot, because of the children and the others."

"We had lots of opportunity to build roofs for people, to provide shelter," says Djergi Gjokaj, an official with the Mother Teresa Society, an Albanian charity, in the western Kosovo city of Pec. "We had a lot of promises, but little realization."

Even when help arrives, it almost inevitably falls short of the demand. A shipment of 145 wood stoves arrived recently in Pec. More than 700 families applied for one. "Whom should we give to first?" Ms. Gjokaj asked. "And who should stay without?" They hope someone would send more stoves.

Still other problems loom for the Kosovars. Years of neglect have left Kosovo's power system in disrepair, causing frequent shortages. Without electricity there is no heat or running water in many homes and hospitals.

Also, because of the war, most Kosovars were unable to grow their own food this year. The UN's World Food Program estimates that 900,000 people, more than half the population, will need to be fed this winter.

Relief workers are counting on Kosovars to help one another. Each family that receives a new roof is expected to shelter two other families. Many people with burned houses have already left their villages and moved in with friends or relatives in the cities.

In Slatina, the Haliti family plans to stay put. As they hurry to beat the cold, their relatives have offered precious help: boards for a roof, a cow that gives seven quarts of milk a day, and a stack of firewood 10 feet tall. "Thank God I have wood," Haliti says. "If I can find a stove, then I can do something!"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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