Excitement slammed into reality as Ghanaian Jasper Ayelazuno's plane reached Pristina. "It was unbelievable. I was on my way to Kosovo as a UN Volunteer," recalls Jasper, one of 200 UN Volunteers assigned as civil administration support officers to the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) last September. "Welcome to Kosovo!" thought Jasper, being greeted upon arrival in Pristina by shocking evidence of the war - destroyed villages - as the plane made its final approach before landing. On his way to town, vehicles on the road without registration plates sent him another message: there is precious little law and order.
One wouldn't think the current situation in Kosovo would surprise Jasper. With a diploma in journalism and experience as a police inspector, he had previously served with the International Police Task Force (IPTF) in Bosnia, the civilian police component of the United Nations Mission in Bosnia.
But it was a rude awakening, indeed. "If it was your first time in a place like this, you would be scared stiff after the security briefing," says Jasper. "And who wouldn't be when you are told about such life-threatening things like mine incidents."
Armed with this dose of Kosovo reality, Jasper took up his post in the Mitrovica region, the mission's "hot spot". Located some 40 kilometres north of Pristina, the city is divided by the Ibar River - ethnic Albanians on one side, Serbs on the other. The bridge across the river marks the limits of reconciliation efforts. It takes less than five minutes to walk from one side to the other, yet constant tensions have made the bridge a symbol of the deep divide that runs between the two ethnic groups. Ongoing violent demonstrations have taken their toll: several people were killed in clashes on the bridge. Many more were injured, among them French KFOR peacekeeping soldiers who were trying to keep the opponents at bay.
In view of those recent incidents of growing ethnic violence it is certainly not easy to work in Mitrovica. Limited freedom of movement and the delicate political situation impede the ease with which projects are undertaken. The UNMIK Regional Civil Administrator assigned Jasper and three other UNV Civil Administration Support Officers to help the municipal administrators with their difficult task of restoring essential services and establishing structures of public administration. UN Volunteers participate in high-level meetings with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local politicians and opinion leaders to find a way of restoring public services that have totally broken down. Several of them will soon be involved, together with some additional 400 UN Volunteers, with a voter registration exercise ahead of municipal elections scheduled for the fall of 2000.
Yet support to civil administration efforts - by far the largest of the daunting tasks given to UN Volunteers serving with UNMIK - is only one aspect of their assistance to the reconstruction of Kosovo. Focusing their efforts at generating employment and rehabilitating the damaged infrastructure in both Serb and Albanian areas of the region and of Mitrovica City itself, other UN Volunteers also contribute in a tangible way to the social and economic recovery, and eventually to the peaceful coexistence of both communities.
Among them are Sherwin Das, a 32-year-old American of Indian origin working on UNDP's Village Employment and Rehabilitation Programme (VERP), and Marie Contini, a French UN Volunteer, who arrived in Kosovo in mid-November and has since been working on UNMIK's winterization project in Mitrovica.
Sherwin spent several years working in the film industry in Los Angeles as an agent for screenwriters and film directors. His most noted claim to fame in this business was selling the script for the recent film "The Sixth Sense", which was written and directed by a former client. Early in 1999, Sherwin decided to take a one-year sabbatical that included carrying out humanitarian work. He came to Kosovo in August on his own with no other objective than to find some interesting work through which he could make a contribution to the efforts of the international community. Originally, he had only planned to stay two months, yet now, almost seven months later, Sherwin is a UN Volunteer working as the head of office in Mitrovica for UNDP's VERP project.
VERP is a quick impact, high-visibility programme designed to spark labour-intensive public works projects in and around the region's villages. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) spends up to a maximum of 180,000 deutschemarks per project, at least 67 per cent of which is spent on workers' salaries. VERP - Mitrovica had the distinction of implementing the first project in all Kosovo at the beginning of last August. The project entailed the removal and recycling of rubble and the repair of the main road in the almost totally destroyed village of Cabra. Other activities included reforestation, the cleaning of irrigation channels, the creation of a public recreational area, and additional rubble recycling and road repair projects.
Last fall, VERP created temporary employment for almost 1,500 unskilled workers in the region of Mitrovica, providing over 1,000,000 deutschemarks for salaries and materials. Sherwin managed the implementation of 10 projects throughout the six municipalities of the Mitrovica region in 1999. This spring the projects will include the repair of the priority village roads in the region, the rehabilitation of the Mitrovica Cultural Centre, the cleaning of a highly polluted river in Vushtrri, a women's handicraft project and the establishment of a nursery for the reforestation of the region.
Marie Contini came to work as UN Volunteer on a winterization project with UNMIK in Mitrovica. She works in a small office on the first floor of the municipality building in Mitrovica. Her team of three - including supervisor Gheorghe Stanescu, a construction engineer from Romania, and one local staff member - has so far managed to rehabilitate close to 500 houses and flats and make them inhabitable for the harsh winter conditions in Kosovo.
Most of Marie's work is not done in the office but in the field, in the mountainous villages around Mitrovica and in the city of Mitrovica itself where many people spent the summer in tents provided by the UNHCR or in haphazardly erected primitive huts. These people dreaded the thought that winter was closing in; many asked themselves how they would survive it.
Marie and her team did their best to help. Due to administrative procedures and the bottleneck at the border to Macedonia there was a delay in the transport and delivery of the necessary construction materials. The most critical situation was in the villages around Mitrovica where access by road would hardly be possible during the winter. A warm and safe house was a question of survival there. Together with the villagers, Marie overcame those problems. She managed to provide almost every village family with a roof, one or two warm rooms (depending on the size of the family) and a stove, thus helping numerous people get through the winter.
The housing situation within Mitrovica was somewhat better than in the surrounding communities, but Marie Contini encountered another problem there. Most of the people whose flats had been destroyed were not able to fully support the winterization of their homes since they did not have the necessary skills in carpentry or masonry which people in the villages had. Contractors had to be hired to perform the necessary work when the construction material arrived shortly before winter set in. But in spite of the lack of skilled craftsmen and the delayed delivery of the required construction material, Marie and her team of three have managed to coordinate and complete the winterization of about 200 flats in northern Mitrovica close to the former police station. According to Marie, the overall percentage of winterization achieved is about 75 per cent and it increases every day due to the better climatic conditions. Marie hopes that all Kosovars whose homes have been destroyed will have dry and warm accommodation by next winter. Her positive experience during her assignment in Mitrovica has convinced her to extend her contract and provide additional assistance to the people.
Jasper's, Marie's and Sherwin's positive experience is not only related to their current tasks but also to the warm welcome they have received in the communities where they have worked. Marie feels that the gratitude of the people she could help to survive is the fuel that makes a UN Volunteer run, particularly since there are so many ways in which UN Volunteers can contribute to the welfare of the people of Kosovo.
With contributions by Dejan Stanojevic, Ayelazuno Jasper, Sherwin Das, Jerôme Domergue and Stephen Kinloch-Pichat.