Sitting on a stool on a windswept hill, wrapped in three sweaters and a man's jacket and dragging deeply on a cigarette as if for warmth, Faza Hysenaj, 98, is tired of foreign visitors.
"Are you here to talk, or are you going to do something?" she barks at a reporter, waving away the looks of consternation of younger family members.
Behind Hysenaj are three tents, two for the nine members of the Hysenaj family to sleep in, and one for living and cooking. Beside the tents is Hysenaj's ruined home, which was first burned in September 1998, when Serbian police forces swept through this former stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Tahir Hysenaj, Faza's 45-year-old son, managed to rebuild one room to shelter the family through last winter, but the house was burned again this spring when Belgrade government forces launched a brutal military operation to purge Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian majority.
Today, the dwelling is roofless, and only one room has four standing walls. "It's very, very cold at night," Faza Hysenaj said. "I'm very worried about the winter."
Kosovo's unforgiving winter is fast approaching, and Western agencies, led by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, are in a race to patch together a shelter system that will protect families from ice, snow and freezing temperatures.
It is not everything the people of Kosovo had hoped for, and the coming months will be difficult for hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians whom Yugoslav army and Serbian police forces drove from their homes this spring in a 2 1/2-month campaign of shelling, burning and killing.
"There will be enough shelter," declared Dennis McNamara, head of the U.N. refugee agency's office in Kosovo, who said U.N. workers will be distributing shelter kits to winterize sections of gutted homes through the end of November. "It won't be very pleasant, and it won't be very comfortable, but there will be enough shelter."
Others are not so sanguine, saying they fear that a lack of food and shelter could provoke social disorder in Kosovo this winter, particularly if rural residents move into the province's already overcrowded cities, where electricity and water systems are already breaking down. Since NATO peacekeeping troops entered Kosovo on June 12, the prewar population of its capital, Pristina, has doubled to 200,000, and the city is often without power.
"We are facing a real risk that winter will bring huge problems, driving more and more people into the cities, especially Pristina," said Paloke Berishaj, a senior official with a local charity, the Mother Teresa Society. "Everything is running very late, and we believe that 500,000 people still don't know where they will spend the winter."
Among them are the Hysenaj family, which has still not received a shelter kit from agencies contracted by the U.N. refugee agency to provide them. As the nights grow colder, the family is growing frantic.
"Look where we're sleeping," said Tahir Hysenaj, pointing to a porous tent. "The cold is getting in, and we're shivering. I thought we might have our house rebuilt."
Like many Kosovo Albanians, Hysenaj had huge--and unrealistic--expectations of their Western benefactors. Many believed their homes would be immediately rebuilt this fall, but the massive reconstruction of the 100,000 homes destroyed or heavily damaged in the Serb-led Yugoslav offensive will not begin until spring. Instead, the West, through the U.N. refugee agency, is supplying stoves and the winterizing kits, roofing some houses and creating a system of large, collective shelters across the province.
But the backbone of the West's winter-survival plan--drawing on the experience of Kosovo Albanians through 16 months of conflict that reached a crescendo last spring--will be the willingness of those who have shelter space to take in the hundreds of thousands of people who don't.
Some U.N. officials believe that catastrophic winter scenarios painted by some ethnic Albanians are more a reflection of their disappointment that there was not an immediate reconstruction effort, rather than a real fear that some people will freeze.
"Expectations were very high," said McNamara, who noted that there was neither enough time nor money from donor countries to begin rebuilding this year. Even obtaining plastic sheeting for the winterizing kits has been a slow, logistically demanding task. Some families, believing their homes would be rebuilt swiftly, cut up the sheeting to cover floors, forcing the U.N. agency to provide them with more.
Although aid agencies plan to continue distributing shelter materials for several more weeks, some fear they will still come up short and that tens of thousands of people who have been living outdoors or in partially repaired houses will be forced to find warmer shelter in cities.
In Pristina, U.N. officials are worried that an aged heating plant that supplies steam heat to 40 percent of the city may not operate reliably through the winter. "Everything will be fine, as long as winter does not arrive," joked Thomas Koenygs, head of the U.N. civil administration effort here. If the heating plant fails, he said, and "everyone puts on an electric heater, then the transformers [at Kosovo's main power plant] will fail," and the entire province will be plunged into darkness.
The power plant is already operating precariously, which became all too evident when electrical service failed repeatedly over the last two weeks. The plant has two transformers that W. Hillary Lee, the U.N. official overseeing electricity, water and heating matters here, says the Belgrade government operated for more than a decade without making needed repairs.
One of the turbines could explode at any time, some officials have warned. Moreover, when Serbian plant managers withdrew, they took with them all the operation manuals and disabled the facility's computerized system, he said. British engineers have been able to get the turbines to function intermittently, providing roughly a third of the electricity Kosovo needs this winter, but they are not sure how long they can maintain operation.
U.N. officials say additional electricity will be supplied through transmission lines recently reconnected to neighboring Macedonia and Albania, but funds have not been donated yet to pay for the power purchase, and the lines themselves are in poor condition. "I am not optimistic," Lee said. "The situation is significantly better than it was in August, but electricity is a big worry."
Kosovo Faces Winter
Winter is fast approaching, and thousands of ethnic Albanians live in makeshift shelters or in the ruins of their houses. Relief agencies are rushing aid to Kosovo to make winter bearable.
* During the 1998-99 Kosovo crisis, more than 848,000 ethnic Albanians fled or were driven out of Kosovo.
* Relief agencies believe about 65 percent of the homes in Kosovo were damaged or destroyed by Serbs or NATO bombs.
* The U.N. refugee agency is providing 56,000 shelter kits that contain plastic sheeting, timber and tools.
* The agency plans to distribute before November: 30,000 tents, 60,000 stoves, more than 1 million blankets, 550,000 mattresses and 183,000 hygiene and kitchen packets.
SOURCES: UNHCR, CARE, Worldclimate.com
CAPTION: An ethnic Albanian family whose house was destroyed by Belgrade government forces last spring gathers outside the tent that has become their home in the northern Kosovo village of Cabra for afternoon tea on a recent Sunday afternoon.