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Yugoslavia: Pristina Gives False Impression Of Kosovo War Damage

  • Ron Synovitz

The European Union's Task Force on Kosovo has completed its first assessment of war damages. Despite reports from some officials that damage is not as bad as they had expected, the EU survey shows that Kosovo has been devastated -- especially in areas outside the provincial capital, Pristina. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz -- who just returned from three weeks in Kosovo -- reports on conditions inside the province and prospects for reconstruction.

Pristina, 22 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission's spokesman in Kosovo says journalists and visiting officials who fail to travel outside of the capital, Pristina, are grossly underestimating the extent of war damage across the province.

Spokesman Roy Dickenson made the remark after several European and U.S. officials said last week that damage from the war doesn't appear as bad as they originally had feared.

"It's easy to come to Pristina and get the impression that it's really not too bad because Pristina is functioning reasonably well. There aren't major buildings down. We have electricity and (sometimes water). But if you go to Pec or to Mitrovica, it's the west and northwest that have been particularly badly hit. Some of these towns have just been destroyed."

Dickenson said an EU task force in Kosovo has just completed its initial survey of war damage. That report will be sent to Brussels tomorrow and will form the basis of reconstruction plans to be announced at a donor's conference in Sarajevo next week. Dickenson said the report includes a request for nearly $1 billion in reconstruction aid just to rebuild damaged homes.

Last week, European Investment Bank President Brian Unwin and the European Commission's chief financial officer, Yves-Thibault de Silguy, said infrastructure damage in Kosovo is not as bad as they had originally expected. That view was cautiously supported by World Bank President James Wolfensohn and U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who said the problems in Kosovo appear manageable.

But RFE/RL's correspondent reports that it will be years before Kosovo achieves the World Bank's goal of sustaining a market economy.

Kosovo's infrastructure is in a sorry state, but the causes go much deeper than three months of NATO bombing and 16 months of civil war. Almost 50 years of communist bureaucracy and a decade of neglect under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic have left the province in worse condition than that seen in most of Eastern Europe in 1989.

The European Commission's Dickenson says Belgrade "systematically deprived" Kosovo of investment during the last 10 years.

Kosovo's last significant development program came in the 1970s when Belgrade pumped enormous funds into the province with the aim of curbing unrest among poor Albanians. Local administrators, however, spent much of that money on grandiose buildings in Pristina rather than improving road and rail connections.

Kosovo's main highways are two-lane roads that are crumbling from neglect. In all directions from Pristina, except south toward Macedonia, it is impossible to travel without detours around bombed bridges. Ten Kosovo highway bridges are impassable.

Railroads suffer from a similar combination of neglect and bombardment, although eight trainloads of construction materials are running each day from Skopje to Pristina.

Indeed, Pristina is in better shape than other Kosovo cities. But UN staff workers still complain that the crumbling infrastructure complicates their work. Most land-line telephones are out of order. That leaves mobile telephones as the primary tool of communication. But the mobile network is run by Mobtel, a company controlled by Belgrade and private interests closely linked to Milosevic.

Since the entrance of NATO forces into Kosovo, officials in Belgrade have regularly disrupted communications by shutting off the mobile network. UN civil administrator J.F. Carter told RFE/RL that Serbs at the PTT state telephone company are "making a point" about their control over the phone system by turning it off.

Water is off in most of Pristina more often than it is on. Although Pristina's water grid is mostly intact, heavy demand on the crippled system lowers pressure to the point that water usually is available only in the mornings -- if at all. Many rural water wells across Kosovo also have been contaminated with chemicals and debris dumped by Serbian soldiers and civilians.

About 70 percent of Kosovos electricity had been imported from Albania or Serbia proper before the war. Serbian officials are still sending electricity to the province. But only one of Kosovo's two coal-fired power stations now functions -- and that plant is working at only 25 percent of capacity.

Dickenson said both of Kosovo's power plants were vandalized by Serbian forces in an effort to disrupt life in Kosovo. He predicts power shortages will become severe in the winter when demand skyrockets because of reliance on electrical heat.

Chuck Setchell, a specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), agrees that the extent of damage in Kosovo is grossly underestimated by those who base their impressions on conditions in Pristina.

Setchell makes regular helicopter flights over Kosovo to assess damaged housing in isolated areas. He told RFE/RL that the transport corridor between Skopje and Pristina -- the main route for most arriving journalists and foreign officials -- appears relatively unscathed compared with western Kosovo.

"In the lower elevation areas and the cities, we see a very extensive damage pattern, (especially) in the west side of the province. A lot of the housing in that area, housing stock, has been damaged at the level of 80 to 90 percent. Quite high. Overall, throughout the province, in looking at every municipality, initial counts are that one in three houses has been damaged at some level. If we use that one-in-three measure, we might be looking on the order of 80,000 to 90,000 houses that have been damaged to some extent."

Dickenson says the latest EU survey shows as many as 70,000 houses have been severely damaged or destroyed. Thousands of small businesses also have been looted and burned across the province. Large sections of cities like Pec and Djakovica in the west, or Podujevo and Mitrovica in the north, have been left in ruins.

Kosovo's entire agriculture sector also is in shambles. Few crops were planted this year. Fields are littered with Serbian mines and unexploded NATO cluster bomblets. Most field machinery has been looted or destroyed, and many food-processing firms were targeted for destruction by Serbian forces.

Enormous legal headaches await those trying to privatize Kosovo's industrial sector. Many factories are still technically owned by the Serbian state or by private businessmen who are close allies of Milosevic. Before ownership issues can be resolved, the United Nations civil administration must first come to a decision on the final status of the province -- a decision that could take three to five years.

Other important tasks needed to support a market economy in Kosovo include the creation of a reliable banking system, laws to enforce contracts of and lessen the risks to foreign investors, and a currency system that operates independently from the Yugoslav dinar.