In Kosovo, on the edge of disaster
By Nicholas Wood International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Hillside under village undercut by a mine
HADE, Kosovo Perched on a hilltop overlooking Kosovo's central plain, this ethnic Albanian village looks much like any other one that was rebuilt after the two-year war between Serb security forces and Albanian resisters.
The roads are lined with large modern houses, some enclosed by high walls. Children kick a soccer ball around as women hang their laundry out to dry.
Just a few signs indicate that not everything is normal: the cracks in the main road that runs along the perimeter of the village, the two gigantic pits a few hundred meters beyond.
Hade sits above a vast, bustling open coal mine that supplies Kosovo's two main power stations, eight kilometers, or five miles, away. Out of view of the houses, the hillside below the settlement has fallen away, sending slews of mud and earth cascading down. Mining specialists say that, at any moment, much of the village could follow.
Officials here admit that Hade is on the verge of disaster, but many of its families remain in their homes as the authorities debate whether the United Nations has given approval for regional authorities to evacuate them.
How the village came to be in such a perilous position is also in dispute. The causes most often cited sound like a list of ailments affecting this region: the technical incompetence of local officials; Kosovo's aging infrastructure, with old, decrepit power stations that require vast amounts of fuel; bad planning by aid agencies; the corrosive effects of the ethnic divisions here over the last 15 years and the nebulous nature of government under the United Nations, which has run the province since the end of the 1997-1999 conflict.
What is not in doubt is that Hade lies above a rich seam of the soft brown coal called lignite, which the mine voraciously unearths.
Half of the village was simply removed for a carefully planned mine expansion in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Then came the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo war, when Serbian security forces used violence to try to quell a move toward ethnic Albanian independence. This prompted violent resistance and a 78-day NATO bombing campaign that ended the fighting. The effects are still being felt.
A recent tour by four-wheel-drive vehicle offered a cautionary look into the mine. Mud creeps like lava across a new road. A section of asphalt laid two months earlier has slid away.
According to Alexander Valenta, a South African mining engineer employed by the UN to advise on mining coal, workers have cut too closely and too steeply into the ground below Hade.
"The disintegration accelerates over time," Valenta said, pointing at the track of the mudslide below the village. "This is the first movement in an exponential line."
The management of the mine has changed three times in 15 years. First, Albanian workers were forced out by the Serb-dominated government. Then Serbs lost control of the mine as Kosovo came under UN administration.
Each transfer cost the mine expertise, Valenta said, and the ever-present pressure to produce coal quickly led to dangerous shortcuts.
But many of the villagers do not seem to feel any sense of urgency to leave.
Over the last 40 years, they have grown used to living next to the mine; most of the village's men worked there at some point. Earlier mudslides and partial collapses have left their homes intact. And they cannot see the most recent signals: The large conveyor belt that carries coal out of the mine keeps villagers from the mine's edge and thus from seeing their own falling hillside.
So they remain largely oblivious to the urgency of the threat to their homes.
"I'll be happy to leave once the government fulfills my wishes," said Jetullah Graicevci, the owner of the village store. Six men standing outside the store who would not give their names made similar comments, saying they wanted jobs and "money in the bank" before they moved.
"It's like people going out to ski when they've been warned and getting killed by an avalanche," Valenta said. "This is identical. The people must be moved now."
Kosovo's regional government and the United Nations mission in the province agree that the village must be evacuated, but confusion remains about whether all the approvals are in place.
Sabit Graicevci, a 36-year-old father of three who is the village's mayor and a member of the same clan as the shop owner, is one of many here who are mystified as to why they were allowed to rebuild their homes after the war if the ground under Hade was due to be mined soon. No one has been able to explain, he said.
Some families are heeding the government's warning and have begun to dismantle their homes.But the UN mission says that 15 families have declined to sign compensation agreements and want guarantees of employment before they are moved to new homes in a nearby town.
For the moment, the Graicevcis and at least several other families say they have no plans to move. The Kosovo government offer - about $45,000 for the average house - is unattractive, they insist.
"We want to keep our children in school until the end of the year," Graicevci said. "Then we'll see what happens."