War In The Balkans: Nightmare of a ruined land lies in wait

JUST POSSIBLY, yesterday's outline agreement in Bonn between Russia and the Western powers could be the start of a diplomatic process resolving the Kosovo conflict. But even so, the aftermath of war could be even messier and more complicated than the war itself.

In some respects, Kosovo faces a Stunde Null, an Hour Zero, to rival that of Germany in May 1945. Many of those who will be returning have been deliberately stripped by the Serbs of their papers, and their every documented legal claim on what they once owned, and their every connection with where they lived - making even the basic task of returning more than 800,000 displaced people to their homes a potential administrative nightmare.

The land itself, according to refugee and eyewitness accounts, is a wasteland. After the orgy of Serb destruction, livestock roams the countryside untended. This year's crops have not been planted. And then there are the human problems, of coaxing Serbs and Albanians to co-exist in peace.

The effort will fall into several phases. The first consists of recreating an environment in which people can live at all. This means demining, and making safe buildings and factories booby-trapped in anticipation of a Nato ground invasion. It also means providing basic accommodation, food and a subsistence income to people who have lost everything.

The medium term relief effort must set about the rebuilding of towns and villages. After the damage inflicted on fuel dumps, power stations, communication and transport facilities, an entire infrastructure must be restored. That process will take years, even before the final challenge - of having Kosovo stand on its political as well as economic feet.

Already, Western diplomats have sketched out a rough division of labour for what happens when the bombing stops and an international peace-keeping force has moved in.

Humanitarian issues and policing would be looked after by the United Nations and its agencies. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe would oversee the rebuilding of Kosovo's institutions, while the European Union would take the lead in promoting longer term economic recovery.

Romano Prodi, the incoming president of the EU Commission, has already called for an EU aid package worth over $5bn (pounds 3bn) a year for the Balkans. EU experts reckon the war may already have caused $30bn of damage to Yugoslavia.

Like many others, Mr Prodi thinks nothing less than a full-scale Balkan conference will be needed. In Bosnia, and its reconstruction after the 1992 to 1995 war, the international community does have a precedent of sorts. But, as officials at the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), set up to help the former states of Eastern Europe make the transition to the market economy, acknowledge Kosovo will be more difficult than Bosnia.

"The damage is greater, and Bosnia had the advantage of joining the EBRD the year after the war ended," one said. "But look at Bosnia now. Three years on, it's still far from being rebuilt."

There are legal difficulties too. The declared aim is for Kosovo to remain within the borders of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia is not a member of the ERBD and has no dealings with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.