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Pristina: The onset of winter is a Kosovo timebomb waiting to explode

INDEPENDENT (London) 4 November 1999

Tens of thousands seek shelter in Kosovo's booby-trapped cities by Philip Gomm

My interpreter gazed down at the half-buried yellow cylinder on which she was standing. She was curious. "If that's a bomb," she said, pointing to an identical object the bomb disposal officer was examining, "is this one too?"

Indeed it was: a bomblet the size of a can of beans, part of a Nato cluster weapon dropped on a Serbian army fuel dump near Pristina airport. We crept carefully backwards.

This was the same type of weapon that claimed the lives of two Gurkha engineers soon after K-For troops entered Kosovo in June. It's the sort that still maims and kills the unwary. And with winter approaching, the unwary and desperate grow in numbers.

In recent weeks K-For's explosives and ordnance disposal (EOD) officers have cleared more than 300 unexploded bombs from this site. Kosovars have cleared the trees, gambling their lives to gather firewood for the coming months.

Some have lost. "Last week a man died after moving one of these weapons.

The week before a 12-year-old boy lost his left leg," said Cpl Chris Hawthorn of EOD. "We spend ages clearing the area of locals, then set our charges. By the time we're ready to detonate they're all back."

The winter in Kosovo will be hard. The UN High Commission for Refugees believes that 50,000 homes have been destroyed, 50,000 more damaged. Aid agencies are distributing plastic sheeting and wood for repairs, but not quickly enough.

Food is another problem. The UNHCR estimates that 900,000 people rely on handouts. Already the weather is making things difficult. Rain has washed away some access roads to remote areas. Helicopters help, but do little to dent the mountain of need.

Zatric is a village of 500 people. It lies 3,000ft up in the hills near Prizren in the south. Today the mist swirls, enveloping everything in a damp chill. The village has had no electricity for two years. Many homes bear the scars of conflict. The school is a tent.

Inhabitants are worried, but most are staying put. "The winter may be bad, but can it be worse than last year?" asked Mustaf Vehapi, a former Kosovo Liberation Army fighter. "We are home, we can cope with the elements, we don't have to worry about the Serbs."

Not everyone may be so hardy. Lt-Col Nick Carter commands the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Green Jackets, in Pristina. He said: "Already we have 300,000 people in a city designed for half that. My concern is that as winter draws on, if shelter isn't in place in the country, we could have 30,000 to 40,000 more coming in. The implications are that the place could blow up."

That's not good news for the few remaining Serbs in Pristina. The UNHCR says security conditions have stabilised, but its latest report admits that "violence and crime against non-Albanians continues."

Sgt Martin Furminger, of the Royal Green Jackets, deals with the problems nightly. In his area, in the south-west of the city, just a handful of Serb families remain. His Serbian interpreter runs a helpline from the Green Jackets' billet. The number of calls is growing, but the number of callers decreasing. Sgt Furminger and his men will remain in Kosovo until the new year. Not all the people he is protecting will stay that long.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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