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Kosovo Refugees Unable To Resettle

September 19, 1998

LABUCEVO, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Clumps of ash _ a door only days earlier _ greet visitors to what’s left of the two-story home of refugee Besim Gashi, who recently descended from a chilly mountaintop hideaway to find the ruins of his village.

Gashi’s home is among thousands destroyed in the seven-month crackdown on separatist Albanians in Serbia’s Kosovo province. Stepping on the sooty red tiles from his collapsed roof, Gashi, 32, displays the sum of his household possessions _ a scorched mattress spring and several pieces of blackened silverware.

``We have no food or water,″ Gashi said. ``The police came at our village from three sides, and we ran. When we came back, we found this.″

A study by international observers made available Saturday shows a fifth of nearly 20,000 houses randomly surveyed last month in western Kosovo are uninhabitable and irreparable.

Yet Serb and Yugoslav authorities, claiming they’ve won their war against the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army and seeking to deflect international criticism, are encouraging, sometimes forcing, refugees to return home.

About 600 people have been killed and at least 275,000 civilians forced to flee since the crackdown began in February. The latest Serb offensive continued Saturday, with the guerrillas fleeing from one of their last strongholds, north of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

Kosovo province is part of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia. Its population is 90 percent Albanian and demanding independence.

The international study, obtained by The Associated Press, surveyed about 220 villages and showed that in addition to the 4,400 irreparable homes, many more suffered major damage. It was completed August 24, before many villages in western, northern and southern Kosovo were gutted in more recent offensives.

Fear also gets in the way of refugees returning. Many tell stories of friends and neighbors who tried to go back, only to be driven off again _ or killed by shelling or gunfire.

``We don’t know if we can live here because police might come again,″ said Gashi, who sleeps outside beneath a plastic sheet to let 12 women sleep in the one relatively intact room of his burned-out house. ``I’ll feel better only if we can find out how to live through the winter.″

Before all this, Gashi was looking forward to his final year of economics studies in Pristina. Now, his main worry is what to eat once the first prolonged frost destroys the berries and grapes so many residents subsist on.

The pro-government Serb Media Center says tens of thousands have returned to their homes in recent weeks as fighting has died down in many areas.

But Fernando del Mundo, the Kosovo spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says few refugees attempt to go home because they fear attacks by Serb police.

The UNHCR said Friday that the latest offensive in northern Kosovo had emptied at least 13 villages and sent more than 10,000 ethnic Albanians fleeing. ``The humanitarian crisis in Kosovo is worsening by the day,″ said Kris Janowski, UNHCR spokesman in Geneva.

Winter already is here in some regions, and an estimated 50,000 people are living in the open. The World Food Program on Friday reported snowfalls in the border area with Albania forcing hundreds of refugees to descend on foot to warmer regions.

Even if some refugees overcome their fear and return to rebuild, they often have to start with nothing.

Aid agencies are delivering plastic sheeting, sleeping bags, plywood and nails. But that’s just the beginning for those who must rebuild from the ground up.

In Labucevo, 45 miles west of Pristina, two recent days of fires, fed by gasoline, reduced the village to a jumble of roofless brick and concrete skeletons. A thousand people now huddle here in fear and mourn the loss of nearly everything built up over the generations.

They cook on open fires and sleep a dozen to a room in the few structures where partial roofs keep out some rain.

For Gashi, the combination of gunfire and winter are frightening prospects.

``Here are only civilians with not even any weapons to fight,″ he says. ``Many will die.″

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