The first priority of international aid agencies is to provide adequate nutrition for Kosovar refugees in camps in Macedonia, even if the diet of donated food is rather boring. But RFE/RL correspondent Kitty McKinsey found that inventive refugee women are finding ways to cook hot meals for their families inside the camps despite meager resources.
Cegrane, Macedonia; 24 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- From the front of a tent in Cegrane refugee camp, a cheerful voice calls out to our passing correspondent: "Would you like a cup of tea?"
Xhemile Mugalli, an ethnic Albanian refugee woman from Kosovo is the proud owner of a battered metal wood-burning stove, a true treasure in a refugee camp where the usual diet is cold canned fish, canned meat and fresh bread.
Her husband found the wobbly metal stove, complete with a meter-high chimney, in garbage that had been cast off by some local Macedonians living near the camp. She was lucky enough to find a sheet of metal to make a stovetop and now she can prepare tea and small warm meals for up to 25 people in her extended family.
Mugalli says that "it's difficult, because we don't have enough firewood," but adds that "sometimes we cook because we are very sick of eating this canned food." She says that "of course it makes [her] feel good to be able to cook."
When the refugees first come into Macedonia from Kosovo, the immediate priority is to provide simple nourishment to people who usually haven't eaten properly for weeks or even months.
The UN's World Food Program makes sure that each refugee gets some 2,000 calories of food a day --an adequate amount, delivered in the form of bread, canned meat, canned cheese, and boxed fruit juices and milk. Private charities operating in the camps supply fresh fruit from time to time. In addition, there are stores in the camps where refugees with money can buy a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
In the small camp at Radusa, three hot meals are provided every day, but this luxury is not available in the huge tent cities of the Cegrane and Stenkovec refugee camps.
And a hot meal is something many of the refugees obviously miss, to judge from the number of makeshift stoves cobbled together throughout Cegrane and Stenkovec, fed by cardboard trash and twigs scrounged from the outskirts of the camps.
In Cegrane, 55-year-old Hasan Hasaj found a metal plate to balance on two cinder blocks, so his wife could cook a big pot of beans for her large family. With cheerful children playing in the background, Hasaj says he's pleased to be able to vary his diet from the food provided in the camp.
"I am really glad to have something hot to eat because two weeks of eating out of cans is boring. I am glad to have a hot meal."
His wife, Xhyzide Hasaj, says wistfully that "I really miss my home and my kitchen. All we eat here is bread with cheese for every meal. I don't like that canned food." She longs to be able to cook -- not gourmet meals, just simple dishes her family of eight is used to, like beans, potatoes and pita, a typical Balkan pastry of phyllo dough stuffed with meat, spinach or cheese.
Namanga Ngongi, deputy director of the UN's World Food Program, who was in Skopje recently, told our correspondent that the refugee camps in Macedonia are unusual because there are no facilities for the refugees to cook.
He called it "the main problem" in the camps and said that "in most refugee situations around the world, the families cook for themselves."
Ngongi said the World Food Program and private charities that provide food in the camps are looking at putting in large communal kitchens where many families could cook for themselves and vary their diet.
He says enabling the refugees to cook for themselves would be psychologically important.
"Of course it is. First of all having a warm meal is much different from having a cold meal every day of the week for one month or two months. So by just having a warm meal psychologically it's good for the refugee population. Not to talk of children. Children really need some little bit of warm, more palatable food."
Ngongi says women would also receive a psychological boost by being able to provide for their own families rather than just accepting food handouts.
But in some cases, the need for warm meals seems to bother aid workers more than it bothers the refugees. Bafta Maskuti, a 42-year-old mother of five, says all that matters is that she escaped from Serb forces in Kosovo without losing any members of her family. "Food doesn't really matter," she says -- "just to have something to eat."
Remzija Cani, who has 15 members of her extended family with her in Cegrane, says the food is somewhat boring, but she's grateful to have it. "It's good, good, thank you very much, it's good," she tells our correspondent. She says her recent horrific experiences in Kosovo put issues of food into perspective.
"I miss having a warm meal, but after we were driven from our homes and barely survived, I am happy that everyone is safe now and it doesn't matter about food."
As refugees continue to pour out of Kosovo in the thousands, adding to the hundreds of thousands already in Macedonia and Albania, aid workers may find it difficult to offer many of them much more than what they are receiving now. And it seems that even under the best of scenarios, it will be a long time before the refugees are preparing hot meals for themselves in their own homes.