In Kosovo, life is shattered Refugees returning to devastated villages fear onset of winter

October 11, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

VRANIC, Yugoslavia -- Barefoot but resolved, Ruzhdi Muqa tosses one boulder after another into what used to be the basement of his house.

The floors are caved in and a few walls stand, stark reminders of a three-story terraced home where weddings were held, babies were born and an extended family of 20 scratched out a life in remote mountains on rocky land.

"It's gone," Muqa says wearily as he cleans away the rubble that was his home -- destroyed by Serbian guns.

Now, Muqa is among the nearly 300,000 people devastated by the Kosovo crisis, driven from his home by a Serbian security offensive designed to root out a rebel army.

The 38-year-old ethnic Albanian is a refugee in his own land, bunking with neighbors, waiting for winter, fearful about the future.

While diplomats talk of fashioning agreements and Western politicians deliver daily threats of using NATO warplanes to end the Serbian onslaught, people like Muqa are concerned about how they'll stay warm, what they'll eat.

"I have no money," he says. "How will I rebuild?"

Muqa's question haunts this place. So much has been destroyed in the fighting in the Yugoslav province -- the historic heartland of Serbian nationalism, but where Albanians outnumber Serbs nine to one.

Going after the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, Serbian security forces killed hundreds and ravaged more than 400 villages, creating a trail of misery for civilians, "internally displaced persons" in diplomatic parlance.

With winter approaching, aid workers are saying that Kosovo faces a potential humanitarian disaster.

The nightmare scenario is that a quarter of the refugee population who are too afraid to return to their villages will remain in the woods, where they will die of exposure and starvation.

That scenario helps to drive the frantic negotiating process, as U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke engages in last-ditch talks with his old Balkan adversary, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

If the West fails to reduce suffering here, in Europe, at the end of the century, where can it possibly succeed in the next?

Not ready for winter

"People haven't got anything prepared for the winter," says James Weatherill, who helps lead the aid team in Kosovo for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, one of more than 30 international agencies trying to care for the needy.

But in the past week, most of the agencies have pulled out of Kosovo, as the war of words heats up to possible NATO bombardment.

Weatherill says that refugees who endured a summer outdoors face far worse in the winter. Latrines overflow or become unusable. The risk of disease rises.

And there is the ever-present search for food and the onset of what could be a harsh winter of cold and snow. It's not just men out in the countryside. There are women. There are tens of thousands of children, most under 15.

"A high percentage of fields haven't been harvested," Weatherill says. "Food stocks are low. Monetary resources have been spent to take care of these people.

"And these people can't buy milk, flour, sugar and oil, which are all in short supply or are available for a high price on the black market."

"All of these things together have created a very bad situation," he adds. "Even with the best scenario -- that forces withdraw, that people return to their villages or homes -- it's still going to be a very, very difficult situation."

The people have survived so much already.

Unexpected fighting

Muqa never thought the fighting would come to his village. He has lived here for 30 years in a home that his father built. While the Serbian security forces cut a path of destruction through rural Kosovo, Muqa and his neighbors had avoided it.

But on the morning of Sept. 27, he and his family awoke to the rolling thunder of artillery. They packed what meager possessions they could carry and fled into the mountains.

"We didn't know where the shelling was coming from," he says. "We just ran."

They were among the lucky ones. Serbian shells were launched at one convoy of refugees containing 250 vehicles and tractors.

Some were killed in what outside observers claimed was one of three massacres as Serbian forces engaged in a mop-up operation against remnants of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Survivors said others were robbed.

Muqa and his family returned to Vranic three days later to find their house destroyed, their tractor torched. Hundreds of others had returned with them to the area that once housed 15,000.

They said the men were rounded up by Serbian police who were still around the village. They were taken to Prizren, where they said they were harshly questioned and beaten by police. The women stayed behind in a school.

The men are angry. They speak of the sort of medieval atrocities that have come to characterize wars in the Balkans.

"They cut off their noses," one man says. "Their eyes were out."

According to Human Rights Watch, four men were killed and hundreds of men were detained and abused.

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