Monday, May 09, 2005

A Village at the Edge, With Nowhere to Go but Down - The New York Times

HADE, Kosovo -- Perched on a hilltop overlooking Kosovo's central plain, this small ethnic Albanian village looks much like any other rebuilt after the two-year war between Serbian security forces and ethnic Albanian resisters in this Balkan province.

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 of less than a mile square, the two gigantic pits a few hundred yards beyond.

Hade sits above the vast, bustling open coal mine that supplies Kosovo's two main power stations, five miles away.

Out of view of the houses, the hillside below the settlement has fallen away, jarring loose sloughs of mud and earth. Mining specialists say that at any moment much of the village may follow.

Officials here admit Hade is on the verge of disaster, but a number of families remain in their homes, refusing to leave.

How the village came to be in such a perilous position is in dispute. The causes most often cited sound like a list of ailments that have recently afflicted this region, which is still trying to recover from the conflict that ran from 1997 to 1999. Serbian security forces then used violence to try to quell an ethnic Albanian independence movement, prompting resistance and a 78-day NATO bombing campaign that ended the fighting.

The causes include the technical incompetence of local officials; Kosovo's dilapidated infrastructure, with decrepit power stations that require vast amounts of fuel; bad planning by aid agencies; the corrosive effects of the ethnic divisions here over the past 15 years; and the nebulous nature of government under the United Nations, which has run the province since 1999.

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 removed for a carefully planned mine expansion in the late 1970's and early 80's.

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.

Alexander Valenta, a stocky suntanned South African mining engineer employed by the United Nations to advise on mining coal, said workers had cut too closely and too steeply into the ground below Hade.

''The disintegration accelerates over time,'' Mr. 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. In 1990, Albanian workers were forced out by the Serb-dominated state government.

When Kosovo came under the authority of the United Nations nine years later, Albanians drove many Serbs out of Kosovo. They lost control of the mine.

Each transfer cost the mine expertise, Mr. Valenta said, and the ever present pressure to produce coal quickly led to dangerous shortcuts.

But over the last 40 years, villagers 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 from seeing their own falling hillside.

''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,'' Mr. 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.

Citing ''the imminent danger to the safety of the villagers,'' Neeraj Singh, a spokesman for the mission, said his agency had, in recent communications, ''reiterated the need for urgent action from the Kosovo government to relocate residents from the endangered zone immediately.'' He said the mission had given the regional authorities permission to begin the evacuation.

The Albanian-dominated Kosovo government says that preparations for the evacuations have been made, but that a further order is needed from the leader of the United Nations mission.

Sabit Graicevci -- a father of three in his mid-30's, 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 to be mined soon. No one has been able to explain, he said.

Villagers had been reassured by local and United Nations officials that it was safe to rebuild homes destroyed by Serbian security forces during the war. The United Nations helped coordinate assistance from international aid agencies; a sign still stands at the village entrance stating that the European Agency for Reconstruction paid to rebuild eight homes.

Some families are heeding the government's warning and have begun to dismantle their homes, but others have refused to sign compensation agreements.

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 still unattractive. [As of May 8, 21 families remained, and heavy rains over the weekend made their situation even more perilous, local officials said.]

''We want to keep our children in school until the end of the year,'' Mr. Graicevci said. ''Then we'll see what happens.''

Photos: Sitting above a vast open coal mine, Hade is slipping away, but many families refuse to leave their largely rebuilt community. A patrol, below, guards conveyor belts that feed Kosovo's power stations five miles away. (Photographs by Andrew Testa for The New York Times)

Map of Kosovo highlighting Hade.

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