Category: Archive

Concern for Kosovo

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Markey

PEC, Kosovo — When Ahmet Gashi fled his village in western Kosovo, he feared what he might find when he returned after three months away.

The 57-year-old farmer left with his family in April after Serbian soldiers surrounded his village of Krushec and began lobbing shells and mortar rounds into the nearby farms. Packing his family and a few belongings into their tractor, Gashi joined a column of refugees making their way through the gauntlet of Serbian soldiers to the Albanian border.

Gashi crossed the border back into Kosovo two days ago. A sparse, doorless shed at the side of his gutted and charred farmhouse now serves as his home. He shares the 4-by-2-meter space with his mother, his wife, two young sons, the wives of his two older sons, and Lindora, his 8-year-old granddaughter.

Inside, three mattresses and a sheet of plastic serve as a bed for the family of eight. Stacked into a corner are the few belongings the family salvaged before their flight: among them two clocks, a stack of wooden bowls, and two worn green plastic teddy bears.

“I have to try to rebuild this. I can’t live through the winter here, it’s terrible,” Gashi said.

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“We have nothing here. Only the clothes we are wearing. They burned everything.”

With most of the 800,000 Albanian Kosovar refugees now back in the province, families like the Gashis are just starting to come to terms with the scale of destruction they left behind.

As the harsh Balkan winter approaches, aid agencies in the region are working to bring the returning population the basics they need to survive the freezing months ahead and start down the long road to rebuilding their lives.

Many refugees are returning home to find they have less than they did inside the refugee camps. Many have no source of income, no stoves and no livestock. Last year’s wheat crop, which should have reaped 300,000 tons, was not planted. And without a basic secure environment, relief workers say, villagers in places such as Krushec cannot begin to slow process of addressing the emotional trauma and scars of war.

“People here are saying all I can think about is my house, my children and food. They are absorbed in their families. We have to provide those basics, to remove the barriers and only after that will we be able to approach the psycho-social issues,” said Rona Blackwood, a coordinator for Concern Worldwide, the Irish relief agency operating in Kosovo.

The west of Kosovo, where Concern is concentrating its operations, saw some of the worst damage during the war, and many of the villages surrounding urban areas such as Prizren and Pec were attacked during a first offensive almost a year before NATO assaults began in late March.

A recent United Nations report on the condition of villages in Kosovo, Rapid Village Assessment, estimated more than 40 percent of residential buildings were destroyed or severely damaged in Pec during the war. But that figure reaches 90 percent for the suburbs and villages surrounding the city.

In rural areas, a polluted or poisoned water supply and the danger of minefields only compound the difficulties facing villagers. Since NATO forces rolled into Kosovo, there have been 58 mine and unexploded ordinance incidents, which have left 25 people dead and 34 injured.

One of 70 agencies working in Kosovo, Concern entered the province with a team of five on June 29 and set up headquarters in Pristina with an operations base in Pec. Working with local staff, the agency has targeted 1,000 extremely vulnerable families in southern Pec — often mothers left without husbands, the elderly and the homeless — in need of immediate assistance, shelter and food.

That translates into tents for those with no homes, and plastic sheeting for families who are able to salvage some winter shelter from the remains of their homes. One room secured in a house can take a family through the winter. Emergency hygiene kits, sleeping gear, clothing and kitchen utensils are also part of Concern’s supplies.

Emotions at the surface

But beyond the practical basics, relief workers are also dealing the raw emotion as refugees grapple with the horrors of the last three months. Families pull aid staff aside to show them corpses tossed into wells, or decomposing skulls buried beneath haystacks. Mothers refuse help because no material aid can bring back their sons, and fathers wonder how they can feed and house their children.

“Their houses are gone. They are finding bodies of dead relatives they might have thought were dead but were not prepared to find in their homes. So there is a huge emotional response,” said Dominic McSorley, Concern’s regional director in Kosovo.

“They’ve just come home and it’s in their faces again. They may have blocked that out while they were surviving as refugees in Albania. But they have to go through a second phase now.”

With a team of local outreach workers, many of whom have suffered traumatic losses themselves, Concern is also trying to identify long-term social needs, a process the agency estimates could take as long as a year. Programs for schooling, youth activities and woman’s programs — aimed at the many families now without fathers and sons — can only come after people have homes and food.

“There’s a need for huge humanitarian aid now. You can’t have one million people returning in three of four weeks without massive disruption,” McSorley said.

In Krushec, just a short walk from the Gashi farm, Neza Berisha has managed to squeeze himself and five children into two small wooden structures near the shell of his farmhouse.

After 10 harsh days trudging through the mountains to Montenegro, Berisha reunited with his family in Albania. He returned to Krushec two weeks ago with little more than a few United Nations relief packages and a roll of plastic sheeting. He counts himself among the more fortunate. His weathered smile reflects a resilient optimism.

“Every time I see NATO tanks, I just stop to make sure it’s NATO, It’s hard to believe after this last year,” he said.

“But I’m going to stay here. This seems like a hotel to me after the mountains, and at least we’re together,” Berisha said, patting his 14-year-old daughter gently on the back.

“I only think about the winter.”

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