Thirsting for a Return to Normality

Deprived of piped water, the people of Kumanovo have returned to their wells to survive the NLA's stranglehold on the city

Thirsting for a Return to Normality

Deprived of piped water, the people of Kumanovo have returned to their wells to survive the NLA's stranglehold on the city

"I need water...I need it to drink, cook, wash and bathe - but whatever I do, I can't get enough of it," said Dragica Spasovska, 50, the bitterness evident in her voice.

Every day, she walks five or six times to the backyard of the Braka Miladinovci elementary school, one of just two-dozen places in the city of Kumanovo where clean drinking water is still available.

As she fills five bottles and a bucket with drinking water, she complains, "What can I do? The water that I am getting now will only be enough to wash the dishes after lunch."

At a nearby hospital the doctors are beginning to discharge patients for fear of epidemic. Some more difficult cases are being referred to Skopje.

For nine days, the 100,000 inhabitants of Kumanovo, an ethnically-mixed trading centre 32 km from the capital, Skopje, have struggled to meet their daily water needs.

Last week, NLA rebels captured Aracinovo, 10km from Skopje, further intensifying pressure on the government to meet their demand for radical improvements in the civil rights of Macedonia's large Albanian minority.

The rebels are in undisputed control of Lipkovo, a mountainous district containing the two reservoirs that are Kumanovo's main water supply.

They haven't sabotaged the reservoirs. Shortages arose when supplies dried up at Lipkovo reservoir because of the high summer temperatures. But Kumanovo's authorities could not switch to the second reservoir at Glaznje, as would normally occur, because engineers were denied permission to travel inside NLA-held territory.

At Bedinje, 4km from the centre of Kumanovo, a convoy of 20 trucks stands waiting. They contain humanitarian aid for the 15,000 people who remained in Lipkovo, escorted by officials of the OCSE and the International Committee of the Red Cross - and a team of technicians with orders to turn on the Glaznje pumps.

As a result, there are as few as 20 locations in the city where fresh water is available, depending on the number of water tankers that ferry in supplies from Skopje.

Two deliveries are made each day, at 8am and 1.30 pm. Yesterday, 38 tankers completed the journey. "Today, unfortunately, we expect less," said Oliver Spasovski, speaking from the mayor's office.

In addition to the tankers, people's main source of supply are the city's 400 traditional wells. "If it weren't for the wells, God knows how we would manage, especially in this heat," said Trajce Boskovski, 54, squinting up at the sun as he queued for water.

"The biggest luxury in the city right now is to have your own well," he continued. "It's priceless," - suggesting the existence of a lucrative black market in man's most precious commodity.

Café Korzo is one of the few establishments in Kumanovo still serving espresso coffee. "We have managed to keep the business going and the customers happy," said the owner. But he serves sodas in bottles, not glasses, to save on the water needed to wash them up.

The current water supply is far from sufficient to meet the needs of a modern city. In normal conditions, residents consume around 25,000 cubic metres of water per day in summer. Today, a fraction of that is available, prompting concerns for the health of residents, particularly their children.

Kumanovo's mayor Slobodan Kovacevski has called on the government to declare a state of emergency. He is asking for 3 million German marks to build two new reservoirs, but the project will take at least two months to complete.

Since the May Day rioting in Bitola, which saw the burning of 40 Albanian-owned shops, Kovacevski has been at pains to reassure the 20 per cent of Kumanovo's citizens who are ethnic Albanian.

"I was very upset that they didn't feel safe," he recalled. "I held a meeting with all the political parties and, with the help of the Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, we managed to convince our Albanians to keep their shops open."

But tempers are beginning to fray in the hot, thirsty weather. "Tensions are growing," said editor Robert Cvetkovski of the Kumanovo Cultural Centre. "People won't talk openly against Albanians, but the situation in Lipkovo has made them very angry, because it affects everybody's daily existence."

Kumanovo's Albanian residents are understandably tight-lipped, but one middle-aged bar owner said, "It all comes down to the constitution. The moment it's changed, everything will go back to normal."

The NLA has since demanded that foreign journalists be allowed to accompany the relief convoy still cooling its heels in Bedinje. The government has refused, saying it cannot guarantee their safety in NLA-held areas.

Meanwhile, temperatures rise and the Kumanovo's man-made drought continues.

Ana Petruseva writes for Forum magazine in Skopje

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