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For 700,000 Europeans, Winter's Dreaded Misery Arrives
By Elizabeth Olson, International Herald Tribune
GENEVA - As winter spreads throughout Europe, at least 700,000 people displaced by war and natural disaster across the Continent face a bleak season in tents and makeshift shelters that expose them to freezing cold, disease and hunger. Dramatic scenarios are unfolding in Chechnya, where the Russian Army's advance has caused some 215,000 people to flee to neighboring Ingushetia, and in Turkey where massive damage from two earthquakes has left thousands homeless and many thousands of others in fear of returning to their homes.
And in the Balkans, the recent war destroyed one-third of Kosovo's housing stock. Relief agencies are scrambling to get a roof over the heads of some 350,000 people who, like their counterparts in Russia and Turkey, already are encountering nighttime temperatures substantially below freezing.
In Ingushetia, an estimated 50,000 people who have fled Russian air strikes and artillery shelling are living in often miserable conditions in camps and trains, and tens of thousands more are living with relatives, friends and host families, or in abandoned buildings, according to UN officials.
Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, visited two camps late last week, one where 7,500 people were living in tents and another where 7,000 people were living in railroad cars.
Anne-Willem Bijleveld, director of the agency's European operations who traveled with Mrs. Ogata, said, ''It's not a humanitarian catastrophe now, but it could become one.''
She said the refugees were living on one meal a day and were in need of sanitation and other services whether they were living in temporary shelters or with host families.
The misery of hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as 1 million people, displaced from their homes comes at a time when Europe generally is prospering, with its bourses flourishing, unemployment down in many places and living standards decidedly improved.
The UN refugee agency is sending in convoys with winterized tents and other essential items, including medicine, but it is awaiting security guarantees before it steps up its activities, said its spokesman, Ron Redmond.
Its sister UN agency, the World Food Program, is asking donors for money to feed 150,000 people for the bleak winter months, said its spokeswoman, Christiane Berthiaume.
A key worry in the area is disease, because there has been little outside assistance in the last three years.
After the end of the 1996 war with Russia, Chechnya became a lawless territory with widespread kidnappings. As result, there has been no immunization in the province, and not much in nearby Dagestan and Ingushetia, said Dr. Edouard Kossenko of the World Health Organization.
''Now that it's winter, we're probably going to see many more respiratory infections because so many of those displaced - between 80,000 and 100,000 - are children,'' said Dr. Kossenko, who works in the health agency's emergency action department.
Lack of good quality water, overcrowding and lack of sanitary facilities have combined to make the situation ripe for diarrheal diseases, including cholera, he said. The organization plans to ask donor countries for $743,000 to cover immunization and essential medicines for the refugees.
In Turkey, an estimated 126,000 people are huddling in tents - and some in prefabricated housing - as a result of earthquakes in August and mid-November that reduced many houses to rubble.
''Everyone is so shocked and traumatized that no one wants to go back into houses, even the ones that are standing,'' said Andrei Neascu of the International Federation of Red Cross. This has created a new population of homeless, said Mr. Neascu, speaking by telephone from the affected Duzce area, about 185 kilometers (115 miles) east of Istanbul.
Winterized tents are being added to those already in place, he said, but he estimated that the 15,000 more being ordered would only cover up to 30 percent of the actual need.
''It is very difficult to say that no one will be out in the open,'' Mr. Neascu said, although he noted that a number of people had moved away from the earthquake zone.
Since the Nov. 12 quake, the weather in the quake-affected areas has been below freezing - the kind of cold ''that gets into the bones,'' he said.
The Red Cross is bringing in mattresses, lamps, drinking water and clothes to help the displaced over the winter months.
Although the crisis is older in the Balkans, the overall number of people affected is the greatest. Up to 900,000 people in Kosovo are getting various types of humanitarian assistance, with slightly less than half facing oncoming cold weather in winterized tents and prefabricated buildings.
Some 120,000 homes in Kosovo - one-third of its total housing - were destroyed or seriously damaged during the conflict in 2,000 villages and towns. Reconstruction of some 50,000 houses, which provided shelter to approximately 350,000 people, cannot be done before winter begins, said Peter Kessler of the UN refugee agency's offices in Pristina.
In addition, the conflict earlier this year devastated basic utilities, particularly electricity, already in a neglected state. The plumbing and central heating systems for cities require major work to get them in running order, he said.
''Everyone will have a dry room, but it won't be a piece of cake,'' Mr. Kessler said.
Most building and other supplies come via Macedonia through a congested crossing point. Only the main roads are paved.
''Building 50,000 homes is a lot anywhere in the world, but it's a lot more difficult here,'' Mr. Kessler said.
Relief agencies are trying to patch existing dwellings with shelter rehabilitation kits that include plastic sheeting, wooden strips and tools to ensure cover over at least one room per house.
Last week, the UN food agency asked for $122 million to help nearly 1.7 million people across the Balkans, including 600,000 Kosovars, during the winter months and into next year. This also includes 1 million people in Serbia, mainly refugees from Bosnia and Croatia, as well as 60,000 in Albania and 20,000 in Macedonia. Also, there are 95,000 displaced persons and Kosovo refugees in Montenegro.