IHT - UN Snags Leave Kosovo Cold and Dark

By R. Jeffrey Smith - Washington Post Service - 1999-11-22

PRISTINA, Kosovo - The official in charge of Kosovo's electricity system has a generator on his fourth-floor 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 dark except for vehicle headlights.

Temperatures dip below freezing, leaving virtually all the 2 million residents in Kosovo in urgent need 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 then sabotaged when Serbian troops and police withdrew from Kosovo in June, at the end of the NATO air strikes.

The power failures are also symbolic of the UN's inability in the last five months to overcome some of the most basic problems that have beset Kosovo's citizens since the conflict broke out among Yugoslav 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 or even partly repaired by aid workers, who are months behind schedule. Water systems in most cities remain fragile or out of order.

The province still lacks a reliable telephone system, requiring even trivial 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. Since then, it has been slow to organize and still finds it hard to make vital decisions and implement them quickly.

One example 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.

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 UN and NATO officials.

UN 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 aid convoys entering Kosovo from routine border controls.

The resulting border congestion - lines of several thousand trucks extending more than five miles south of the principal crossing at Blace - means it takes aid trucks at least four days longer on average to reach Kosovo, according to Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

''This issue is wreaking havoc,'' Mr. Kessler said last 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.

The Macedonian government has so far defied direct appeals from Secretary-General Kofi Annan of the United Nations and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to ease the crisis.

International Herald Tribune.


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