The official in charge of Kosovo's electricity system works on the fourth-floor generator on his balcony providing just enough power to illuminate a single computer screen.
His colleagues huddle around a propane heater in the next room, and the landscape outside is devoid of light except for auto headlamps. Temperatures dip into the twenties and thirties, leaving virtually all of Kosovo's2 million residents in urgent need of heat and hot water.
But the United Nations is just now repairing the plant that supplies the province with electricity. The result is that water and power outages here are frequent and often last for days, leaving the populace in the cold. Reasons include a shortage of funds and supplies, and the enormous challenge of operating decades-old generating equipment that was poorly maintained by Yugoslav authorities and heavily sabotaged when Yugoslav troops withdrew from Kosovo in June at the end of the NATO bombing campaign.
But the power failures are also symbolic of the United Nations' inability in the past five months to overcome some of the most basic problems that have beset Kosovo's citizens since the conflict broke out among Yugoslav government forces, ethnic Albanian rebels and NATO air power enforcing a Western demand that Yugoslavia withdraw its troops.
Only a fraction of the estimated 125,000 homes damaged in the conflict have been rebuilt even partially by aid workers, who are months behind schedule. Water systems in most cities remain fragile or inoperative. The Serbian province still lacks a reliable telephone system, requiring even the most trivial of messages to be delivered in person.
Organized crime is growing rapidly, and ethnic tensions and harassment are still widespread despite the more than 35,000 international peacekeepers here. Many school classes are being held in tents or dilapidated, unheated buildings.
The United Nations admits it was unprepared to administer Kosovo at the end of the war, despite nearly three months of international discussion of the task ahead. Since then, it has been slow to organize and still finds it hard to make vital decisions and implement them quickly.
A case in point is the provision of heated shelter for an estimated 300,000 needy citizens. The task was supposed to have been completed before the cold weather arrived, but only half the prefabricated houses sent here have been erected. Less than a quarter of the roofs that were to be repaired are finished, and only half the "dry room kits" prepared by aid workers have been distributed.
The consequence has not only been to leave some families shivering but also to create enormous competition in urban centers for apartments. This in turn has given rise to violent feuds and has further stoked ethnic Albanian enmity against the dwindling number of Serbs still in Kosovo, according to U.N. and NATO officials.
U.N. officials ascribe the delays partly to routine infighting and poor coordination among humanitarian agencies, partly to inadequate preparation when the weather was warm and partly to the Macedonian government's decision on Nov. 4 to stop exempting humanitarian aid convoys entering Kosovo from routine border controls.
The resulting border tie-up--lines of several thousand trucks extend more than five miles south of the principal crossing at Blace, Macedonia--means it takes aid trucks at least four days longer on average to reach Kosovo, according to Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
"This issue is wreaking havoc" with Kosovo's recovery, Kessler said this week.
Macedonia has complained repeatedly that past Western promises to help fund a trade center near the border and finance a customs facility to accommodate the extra traffic at Blace have never been fulfilled. Its government has so far defied direct appeals from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to ease the crisis.
Another example of U.N. slowness is the award of a mobile telephone contract this week to a British-French consortium. The decision followed months of internal U.N. debate while communications throughout the province--and between humanitarian agencies--were seriously hampered.
Senior U.N. officials had said they wanted to postpone awarding the contract so that a state-owned corporation run by ethnic Albanians could begin to bill its customers and amass cash needed to refurbish the phone system without foreign help. But international managers belatedly realized this was impossible and subsequently took two months to accept the consortium's bid. Its work is slated for completion in three months.
Electricity posed one of the biggest challenges from the moment the war ended, since Yugoslav troops deliberately sabotaged two key transmission lines and then deployed land mines nearby to hamper repairs, according to William White, a British civilian engineer who is coordinating the repair effort.
The Serbian operators of the plant also stole all the operating manuals, most of the spare parts and used an impenetrable password to shut off the computer controls. They also sabotaged conveyor belts used to feed the plant's immense burners with lignite coal from a nearby mine.
Although these problems were mostly known in July, U.N. officials waited until Sept. 25 to sign a contract with Mott MacDonald, White's firm, to repair four of its giant turbines, and the work did not begin until this month. It will not be completed for several more weeks, and even then, White says, "it may work, it may not. We don't know."
Operating the power plant has been complicated by the inability of U.N. officials or NATO troops to ensure it has a steady supply of fuel oil and diesel fuel needed to restart the turbines if they fail. The Macedonian border problems have contributed to the problem, but NATO officials also have not yet finished repairing rail lines--also sabotaged by Yugoslav forces--that would be an alternative.
Repairs are taking longer than desired because workers at the power plant have refused to work overtime, saying they have not been paid in three months. Also, no efforts are being made to ensure that individual buildings receive the power they are meant to get, because, White said, "the distribution people are loath to go out on calls. They don't have any vehicles, and if they did, they would not have any fuel."
Some U.N. officials have alleged that power distribution organized by the plant's ethnic Albanian managers is unfair to Kosovo's Serbs. White says he would like to be able to monitor the process more carefully, but the United Nations has yet to write a letter formally stating that "we are running the power plant."
As he works out a system on his dimly lit computer for paying the workers, White expresses pride that he "suffers as much as anyone else" in Kosovo. Where else, he says, "would you find the head of a power company operating in darkness?"