In Kosovo, Fear And Hunger

The men never venture out of their shuttered homes, for fear of being summarily executed. Women know they could be raped. So ethnic Albanians who have not been routed from their homes in Kosovo send children out to the few food stores that are still open or to stand in bread lines. There is little on sale in the shops. And many merchants will sell only to Serbs. "If you want to buy bread, ask Clinton," refugees say they were told. One said he had bought a loaf of bread and as soon as he left the store, a policeman grabbed it and said, "Go to Albania if you want bread."

Albanians trapped inside Kosovo now face an insidious new enemy: hunger. "We figure now there are some 820,000 internally displaced people inside Kosovo, many, if not most, corralled into pockets by Serb security forces, largely cut off from any sources of food or supplies," said the NATO military chief, Wesley Clark. Refugees who crossed into Albania last week gave now familiar, but still terrifying, accounts of growing hardship--rape and mass executions. But growing reports of widespread hunger are what most alarm relief officials.

Starvation could kill many more than Slobodan Milosevic's dreaded militias can. The last normal harvest in Kosovo was in 1997. War disrupted last year's and this year's plantings, and Serb troops regularly destroy granaries. Before the NATO bombing campaign began six weeks ago, 210,000 people were already surviving entirely on relief supplies. World Food Program food stocks in Kosovo on the eve of the war, 3,000 metric tons of wheat, would only have been enough to feed people for a week. "For those living outdoors, we don't know how they've survived this long," said WFP spokesman Trevor Rowe. "In fact, we don't really know if they have survived."

Malnourished people have begun pitching up on the frontiers. On April 23, a team working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees hiked 10 hours up to the snowbound village of Lipkova on the Macedonian border. There they found 500 newly arrived refugees who had fled over the mountains because their food had run out and the normal border crossing was closed. "Many of the children appeared to be unconscious, others were too exhausted to talk or even eat," the UNHCR reported. The refugees said seven children and two elderly people had died from exposure on the way. A group of Albanian physicians who escaped Kosovo called for immediate air drops of food supplies, according to Jennifer Leaning of the Boston-based group Physicians for Human Rights. "Mass death may be imminent," she said. But both NATO and U.N. agencies have ruled out such air drops because relief planes would be vulnerable to Serb antiaircraft fire.

Western military analysts give the Kosovo Liberation Army high points for diverting its resources to protect the homeless. But the guerrillas' own food is now running out, according to several of their regional commanders inside Kosovo contacted by NEWSWEEK via satellite phone. In the Shala district in northern Kosovo, about 40,000 refugees left KLA protection, risking death or deportation, to try to find something to eat in the looted homes they had fled. "If we don't get [outside support] soon, it will be bad," a KLA official in northeastern Kosovo said. A diplomatic source who visited the town of Podujevo in eastern Kosovo reported that some 25,000 Albanians had just returned from KLA territory. "They were exhausted, hungry, and their hygiene was appalling," he said. At night he could hear what he thought were people foraging for food in nearby fields.

Fleeing remains just as perilous. Stories of casual brutality are common. Zhura, a village where many refugees begin a final, 10-mile trek to the Albanian border, features in many of these. According to three separate eyewitness accounts gathered recently by the Albanian Human Rights Group, the driver of a Serb armored car deliberately ran over a 4-year-old refugee boy who dared to run out of line to get a drink of water, and police prevented the mother from running to her dead son's side. His mangled body lay by the road, just a short distance from the border, safety and nourishment.

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