Families huddle in Kosovo chill
NATO helicopters deliver blankets to remote areas this week. While cold, most Kosovars are coping.
As the sun sinks behind a distant mountain ridge, Ajshe Bytyqi stands in her frozen yard, surrounded by her five children, all hatless and sniffling, their bare hands stuffed in their pockets. An empty canvas tent sags against a backdrop of snowy fields.Skip to next paragraph
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"We're living here, down in the earth," says Mrs. Bytyqi, waving her hand toward the foundation of a house that juts a few feet above the ground.
Bending low, she throws aside a flap and slips inside. It is the basement of the house that she and her husband, Rexhep, never had a chance to finish. Last spring, the Bytyqis say, Serb forces burned the house next door and stole building materials they had set aside for their own home.
Now, the family lives in a windowless burrow with a dirt floor and a concrete ceiling too low to stand up beneath. A wood stove casts a modest warmth, and an improvised lamp - two cotton wicks lying on a plate of cooking oil - lights the gray wool blankets that ward off part, but not all, of the winter chill.
"This space we're in is very bad," she says. "But it's a little warmer than the tent."
Eight months after NATO intervention ended a Serb crackdown on the province's independence-minded ethnic Albanians, Kosovars find themselves battling the Balkan winter. The cold that was only a distant threat in summer, when hundreds of thousands of refugees returned to ruined homes, has finally arrived, bringing ice and snow, biting winds, and temperatures well below freezing. Many families are struggling to keep warm in conditions that one relief official describes as "medieval but survivable."
This week, KFOR, the NATO-led protection force in Kosovo, plans to deliver shelter materials, clothing, and blankets by helicopter to several remote and snowbound villages in northern Kosovo. The United Nations, meanwhile, is moving ahead on plans to bring local leaders into a joint administration overseeing Kosovo. Some departments of the Interim Administrative Council are to begin operating today.
The challenge is greatest in the countryside, where Serb offensives in 1998 and during the NATO airstrikes last spring left the worst destruction. The UN refugee agency estimates 100,000 houses are damaged or destroyed.
Winter is proving unexpectedly harsh in towns, too. Kosovo's two aging power plants have failed repeatedly, leaving urban Kosovars without electricity, water, or heat. Even when both plants are working, blackouts can occur.
"It's hard to live here, same as in a village," complains Luljeta Limani, a grocery-store clerk in Pristina, the provincial capital.
Winter also is testing the efforts of international humanitarian agencies, which have been laboring since June to help Kosovars rebuild. This month, relief workers were still handing out shelter materials that were supposed to be distributed months ago. But most work has been done, they say. In villages across Kosovo, houses that were little more than walls last summer now sport new roofs and in many cases new windows and doors. Relief agencies have given out 55,000 emergency repair kits and materials for 12,000 roofs, as well as tens of thousands of wood stoves, hundreds of thousands of foam mattresses, and millions of wool blankets.