By Richard Mertens, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
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.
"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.
"This operation should be the example for operations worldwide, rather than the exception," says Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency. "It's not to say more couldn't be done. A lot more could be done. But a lot more has been done here than in other places." The UN's goal is to make sure that every family in Kosovo has at least one warm, dry room. But in Kosovo, where families tend to be large and live in extended households, that doesn't guarantee comfort.
In Ljubizda, in central Kosovo, the Morina family got new roofs on their two houses, plus enough doors and windows to enclose three rooms. With 34 members, however, the accommodations feel cramped. "People are in poor health," says Shaqir Morina, one of eight brothers. "Every day they are going to the doctor." Still, the Morinas are fortunate. They are among the 50,000 families with houses that relief workers found could be rebuilt. An equal number of families, whose homes were beyond repair, have had to find other shelter. Many have moved into towns, to live with relatives or occupy the apartments of Serbs who have fled Kosovo. Others decided to stick out the winter at home.
"They are very tied to the land," says Kathleen Moynihan of Catholic Relief Services, a Baltimore-based charity. "It's a culture that has to protect what they have."
For many families, heat is a bigger worry. In Terstenik, in central Kosovo, a dozen members of the Hajdini family live in a run-down stable. The firewood a humanitarian agency provided in the fall is gone. The threat of land mines makes gathering more in the nearby mountains risky. Grandfather Ramadan Hajdini says the family has begun to chop down the scrubby trees around their ruined house. "What can we do?" he asks. "We don't have money to buy wood."
Relief efforts continue. As the cold deepened last month, the UN said it was bringing in 63,000 sleeping bags, 100,000 more blankets, and 360,000 more winter coats. But concerns of a humanitarian crisis seem to be waning. Emergency shelters, which can hold 20,000 people, are two-thirds empty. Health officials say, despite the discomfort, Kosovars seem to be weathering the cold.
"I'm sure it's going to take a toll on people," says Robert Hagan, head of the World Health Organization office in Pristina. But, he continues, "They seem very resilient."
The Bytyqis seem both resilient and chilled. Their wood supply is running low. They have few blankets. The children, though layered in multiple T-shirts and sweaters, lack enough warm clothes. Because their burrow is damp and unventilated, they spend much of the day above ground. When night comes, they feed the stove and wrap themselves in blankets, the five children huddled together for warmth.
But Mrs. Bytyqi says the family never considered moving to an emergency shelter. "It's much better to be in my place, on my land, than with strange people," she says.
Bytyqi hopes someone will help them build a proper house before next winter. "I'm hoping the worst will be over."