When Metije Ademi returned to Kosovo from Macedonia last month, she made her way to her apartment building, walked apprehensively up 10 flights -- and found her home exactly as she had left it.
"I don't see any difference," she said of postwar conditions. "We have water, electricity, just as in normal days. Yes, I expected it to be worse."
So did NATO and international relief agencies, which were so concerned about conditions in Kosovo as the war ended last month that they urged ethnic Albanian refugees to delay their return home. But rather than a charred wasteland littered with mine fields and inhabited by a starving population, the NATO forces that entered Kosovo, swiftly followed by 625,000 refugees, have found the physical damage to the province much less widespread than Western officials had claimed.
International investigators have discovered evidence of atrocities committed against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority on a scale even greater than anticipated. But as beat up as Serb-led Yugoslav forces left some sections of the province -- especially the western part -- there are relatively few signs of damage from either the Serbs or the 78-day NATO bombing campaign throughout most of Kosovo.
That observation is quantified in a United Nations disaster assessment provided this week to the U.N. mission that will establish an interim administration in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. "The extent of the damage to housing has been overstated," the U.N. report says.
Sections of the province are every bit as devastated as feared. Whole neighborhoods in the western cities of Pec and Djakovica are blackened shells, for example, and villages stretching to the mountains of Albania are charred rubble occupied by stray animals and marked by piles of sodden clothing.
Several international agencies released a report today that called damage to housing and to health-care and water resources "severe" in 141 of Kosovo's approximately 2,000 villages. Forty percent of the water in the villages is unusable, with many wells polluted by human and animal corpses, it said.
But the damage is not wholesale. In a territory in which two-thirds of the population is described as urban, no cities other than Pec and Djakovica suffered widespread damage. And most of the countryside is not as battered as it appears from main roads. "Mainly the houses next to the paved roads are the ones burned," said Sabit Nebhu, the owner of one of five roofless dwellings in the southern village of Soveja.
Across Kosovo, up to 35 percent of all homes have been damaged, according to the U.N. study, which found that "only a small percentage have been totally destroyed." And a third of the province -- in the north, east and the area around the southern city of Prizren -- suffered little damage, the report said.
Utilities and infrastructure remain essentially intact. Damage from NATO bombs was limited largely to a few military installations and police headquarters. Only one of four bridges knocked out by NATO warplanes is likely to need extensive repair.
There is almost no telephone service beyond Pristina, the capital, where a cellular network functions intermittently. But only one town, Srbica, lacks adequate water supplies, and the entire province, which is about the size of Connecticut, has electricity.
Land mines have claimed a number of limbs and a few lives, but officials in charge of clearing the mines are having more trouble dealing with false alarms from refugees who returned expecting to find them everywhere. "The problem is, a lot of the suspicion is unfounded," said New Zealand army Lt. Col. John Flanagan, who is coordinating mine clearance. "We are not finding large-scale mining and booby-trapping incidents."
Less than a month after NATO forces rumbled into Kosovo, in fact, the "crisis that has dominated the world news for the last few months is rapidly changing from a humanitarian emergency into a situation dominated by political and economic issues," the U.N. assessment concluded.
On Wednesday, the U.N. mission here acted on the report's strongest recommendation and announced it will spend almost $15 million over the next three months to pay the salaries of ethnic Albanian government employees who have been fighting for the jobs they lost to Serbian administrators when the Belgrade government rescinded Kosovo's limited autonomy 10 years ago. Several mass protests over the jobs issue have threatened to turn violent in recent days.
Aid agencies acknowledge that conditions in Kosovo, while still severe for tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians, are far from the worst-case scenarios being sketched in dramatic, if not apocalyptic, terms just weeks ago.
As NATO troops lined up at the Kosovo border last month, the United Nations' World Food Program finalized plans to roll in mobile bakeries for a famished population in a land without electricity. Not only were the mobile bakeries unnecessary, but within days returning refugees were handing back the ready-to-eat rations and requesting flour and other staples they could use to cook for themselves.
They will, however, need aid through the winter. A survey by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found a "severe deficit" in wheat, 80 percent of Kosovo cornfields unplanted and that a third of large livestock had been killed or carried off into Serbia proper.
A pressing concern during the war was the unknown condition of ethnic Albanians who were forced from their homes by Serb-led security forces but remained in Kosovo -- many living in the mountains beyond the reach of troops and police. The United Nations estimated their number at 400,000 to 500,000.
"I've heard the statement several times that the internal displacement was not as bad as we said," said Sergio Vieira de Mello, acting head of the U.N. mission here. "I cannot say today whether that was the case or not." He said that Kosovo is so small that many people probably returned to their homes before they could be counted. Others say they were in the mountains for only a few days.
When aid workers finally arrived, they found valleys recently abandoned by tens of thousands of people, although few of the returning inhabitants appeared to have been at risk of starvation. "It wasn't that extreme," said World Food Program spokesman Jeff Rowland.
The U.N. report faulted earlier assessments for failing to distinguish between damage to housing from looting as opposed to arson or shelling. "Damage caused by looting always looks serious but is often easily and quickly repaired," the report said. "Considering that some returnees will remain with relatives and host families within Kosovo, the provision of winter shelter, although a major issue, is unlikely to be the humanitarian catastrophe that had been predicted."
In Pristina and Gnjilane, both large but lightly damaged cities, merchants this week toted new sheets of plate glass past busy coffee shops and open boutiques, dodging a steady stream of traffic directed by British and U.S. troops.
Still, many houses are a total loss. The U.N. refugee agency has given out 4,000 tents to returning refugees whose homes were leveled or are uninhabitable. Sadako Ogata, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told a news conference that another 22,000 tents are in stock.
But no longer is the lead agency in the humanitarian emergency imploring Kosovo Albanians not to return home too soon. Of the 137,000 refugees still in adjoining countries, Ogata said, "the earlier they are back, the earlier the reconstruction of this country can proceed."
CAPTION: Agim Nikci, an ethnic Albanian, looks up at damage done by Serb-led forces to a 300-year-old mosque in Pec. The city suffered more than other areas.