Crisis in Kosovo: 'She died of hunger and fear'

THE BODY of Rahime Brahimi lay wrapped in a sheet under the shelter made of branches and plastic bags which had been her home since she fled her Kosovo village "under Serbian guns" in March.

Aged 34, with four young children, the months of poor food and contaminated water had been too much, and when disease struck she was too weak to fight it.

The woman's husband, Liman, said his wife's death was one more reason for the West to intervene in Kosovo. "She died of hunger, fear and cold," he said, surrounded by their four children, whose faces were still blank with shock.

"If Nato and the Western countries do not help us, all these people are going to die," he continued, pointing at the families spread across the hill. "We have faith in Nato that they will act. The only hope we have is from the outside world."

President Bill Clinton said 50,000 people were at risk from freezing or starving to death this winter, unless conditions are created for refugees to return to their homes. The estimate, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was made at the height of the Yugoslav offensive in August.

A UNHCR spokesman, Fernando del Mundo, said that people had been able to return since then, but a number remained in the hills. The weather was worsening and the first cases of bronchitis were being reported among the children.

"If they stay out in the open, they will start dying," he said.

The diplomatic and military timetable for Nato action has been dictated by fears both that winter weather would cause the long-predicted humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo and that it would make finding targets from the air next to impossible.

Driving around Kosovo, past the burnt-out houses and the dead livestock by the side of the road, it seemed as if the Serbian police and army units had been scaling down their presence.

But in the town of Malisevo, once a stronghold of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, the police were yesterday there in larger numbers than at the start of the conflict in March. One group had taken up residence in a house which had belonged to a KLA officer.

We drank coffee and plum brandy in a front room scarred by graffiti, which the police officers insisted was done by the former Albanian occupants. They said they would remain in the house as long as they were ordered to.

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