According to the United Nations high commissioner for refu-gees, a quarter of all the homes in Kosovo were destroyed during the conflict. Now, with the cessation of hostilities, international relief agencies are struggling to provide tens of thousands of returning refugees with shelter, food, water and sanitation. At the beginning of August, more than 75,000 people displaced during the fighting are still without basic shelter and infrastructure. More are returning all the time and with the onset of winter not far off, the need for shelter takes on a new urgency.

Agency Faces Mammoth Task

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of nearly 200 nonprofit relief agencies, or nongovernmental organizations (NGO), operating in Kosovo, has provided food distribution, shelter, water and sanitation assistance in every refugee crisis since the exodus from Nazi Germany in 1933. With the cessation of hostilities, IRC field teams are once again in Kosovo, assessing infrastructure damage and shelter-repair needs, providing building materials and expertise, repairing and decontaminating water systems, and operating mobile health clinics. Given the nearly 2,000 villages in Kosovo, the task is enormous, even with 200 NGOs on the scene.

Technology to Expedite Operations

To expedite aid to refugees, the IRC is developing geographic information system (GIS) databases and a data-communications network. According to IRC's GIS consultant, Philip Chinnici, the technology will enable the organization to more effectively visualize and track areas of shelter and infrastructure repairs, expedite delivery of building materials and basic household supplies and organize medical records. Field teams are already beginning to collect data needed to rebuild databases that were lost or destroyed when they were forced to evacuate Kosovo in March. But, Chinnici said field teams must wait until the Kosovo International Peace Implementation Force (KFOR) declares a village safe before they can go in. "Right now, security is very intense because of unexploded ordnance; finding and clearing land mines and booby traps is a slow process."

In March, the organization moved its field headquarters to Skopje, Macedonia, and toward the end of May, requested permission from NATO, and from Belgrade via the Swiss Embassy, to make airdrops of food packages to refugees hiding in the forests and mountains of Kosovo. IRC Vice President of Overseas Programs Barbara Smith said Belgrade did not respond. "But NATO allowed us fly between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. in specified air corridors. Apart from that, they refused all assistance save an agreement not to shoot the plane down, if we got in and out on time. The pilots had little time for more than one pass over the drop zones." Smith added that the IRC used GIS to calculate the exact locations of the drops, and had the plane painted white with orange stripes to ensure recognition from both sides. "Despite the critical navigation and timing, all the food packages went into the drop zones."

In Macedonia, Chinnici established an information department and began developing a wide area network (WAN) that will eventually link Skopje and IRC field offices in Kosovo. He also trained a local GIS staff to digitize hard-copy data collected during the first three months of the GIS operation. Those already familiar with Windows are building databases with Microsoft Access. When the GIS unit returns to Pristina, one of its first priorities will be to train a local GIS trainer. Data-entry clerks and advanced GIS people will be needed there to begin processing data collected by field teams.

Return to Kosovo

Two days after NATO troops entered Kosovo, IRC Water and Sanitation Coordinator Roy Brennen followed with an eight-member team to reopen field offices and resupply warehouses and shops looted by Serb forces in Pristina, Prizren, Peja and Gnjilane. Despite the need to complete these tasks and get into the villages before the onset of winter, the teams will have to wait for KFOR clearance. "Security is