As controversy continues over whether the international community should donate heating oil to Serbian cities, it is a given that Kosovo must be helped through the winter. Yet despite the influx of aid from United Nations and other agencies, many Kosovar villages are still completely unprepared for the coming cold. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos visits Kosovar villages in the Drenica area, and finds many families exposed to the elements.
Godishnjak, Kosovo; 2 November 19999 (RFE/RL) -- The children of Godishnjak all have runny noses and hacking coughs. But locals in this small, ethnic Albanian village in Kosovo's northern hills say the children are only the first to get sick. With snow just a few weeks away and housing limited, villagers worry that they will not survive Kosovo's harsh winter.
Little has been done to repair the many houses that were burned by Serbian paramilitaries during the war, and families have been forced to crowd into tents or leaky rooms. There are not enough blankets or warm clothes to go around.
With the help of his neighbors, Adem Bici has constructed a mud roof over one room of a partially destroyed barn. The head of a family of eight, Bici says the windowless room is the only alternative for the two dozen people he lives with in a tent. He says the roof may not keep out the elements, but it is the best they can do.
"Even in this room that the water can leak through the roof. But for us, I do not know what to say, it will be very hard."
The villagers say international agencies promised to bring materials to finish a roof on a nearby house. But so far they have only received four small mattresses and a few blankets. Autumn rains have soaked the thin cushions and mice have chewed holes in the blankets. Most villagers have skin rashes from the damp.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not sent aid workers to Godishnjak for one month. UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler says that the rains have turned the winding dirt roads to mud and made it impossible for agency vehicles to reach the hillside village. Locals say they are sure to be stranded once the snow falls.
Kessler admits that a potential disaster awaits Kosovo's villagers, who make up 70 percent of the province's population. He says the agency is limited in what it can provide to the some 300,000 people who will be living in tents this winter.
"Expectations are very high as they are in any situation, especially in the situation of a European winter. But we also have to look at realities. The level of destruction across Kosovo is huge. Over 100,000 homes damaged and destroyed. Much of the work force of course doesn't have the materials they need to rebuild their homes. There is not even a tile factory in Kosovo and the two-lane road leading out into Macedonia is not big enough to handle the traffic that exists now, much less the traffic if 100,000 homes had to be rebuilt."
Ibrahim Bislimi, the head of Klihaeulte village in central Kosovo, says that local solutions to the housing crisis have not been explored. He says international organizations are wasting time and money importing building materials that could easily be produced locally. While a group of some 20 men from his village distribute a shipment of plastic sheeting and wood delivered by the aid agency CARE, Bislimi gestures to a dormant brick factory down the road. He says that the factory formerly employed many men in this village of some 1,500 but was disabled during the war by Serbian forces.
Instead of importing building materials, Bislimi believes the UN should repair the factory and produce bricks for a fraction of the price. Just one engine, says Bislimi, could both speed the reconstruction process and stimulate the local economy.
"Yes, we are very worried all the time about (the winter) and we are still worried...We will build the roofs by ourselves. KFOR soldiers have promised to help those families who don't have any males or people capable to do the work. And the people here are not very satisfied with plastic to use as a roof. But they have no choice because the winter is very close."
Temperatures already dip below freezing in the mountains.
Bukurije Deliu lives with her six small children in the hills in Rezalla village. This weekend, her husband took out a small loan to buy materials to rebuild the roof of their damaged home. In the meantime, the family shares a summer tent and one room of their barn with 12 other people. They used to quarter their cow next door, but after selling the animal last month to buy food, they now use the room as a makeshift toilet.
Sharing only four mattresses and three blankets among 20 people, Deliu and her family also have no warm clothes for the winter. She says they have only the tattered sweaters and jeans that they wore when they fled the village last summer. Everything else was burned.
"Everyone has his own problems. No one is able to help us...(My son) has some problems with his eyes. I try to wash the children, but it is impossible because when I wash them they are staying in a tent and at night it is cold and so they are getting sick...We do not have money to buy anything, so we will need the roof, we will need windows, doors. We will need medical help, of course, for the children as you can see...If I had this house repaired, I would invite many people who have no place to stay to come in my home."
Unlike many of her neighbors, Deliu did not lose any of her children to the war. But she says that the winter snows pose a new threat. Lacking a roof over their heads and proper food, Deliu worries that her children will not survive the cold months to come.