Naskov on Sun, 6 Jun 1999 13:03:16 EDT

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Syndicate: Even in Refugee Camps, Women's Work Never Don

Sunday, June 6, 1999 Even in Refugee Camps, Women's Work Never Done  
 Survival: Sweeping up is one way to exercise a small bit of control over 
their daily lives. So much else for them is now a shambles. 
By ALISSA J. RUBIN, Times Staff Writer
CEGRANE CAMP, Macedonia--In the early morning hours, before the visiting 
dignitaries come for their escorted tours, before the press arrives, before 
even the humanitarian aid workers get here, this camp is a woman's world. 
     Using a small broom bought in one of the provision stores that have 
sprung up in every refugee camp in Macedonia, one woman after another begins 
her daily ritual--often repeated a dozen times a day--of sweeping the bare 
earth in front of her tent and laying anew the cardboard boxes that serve as 
a doormat. In the growing heat, when a scorching wind blasts for much of the 
day and coats everything with a fine layer of dust, the devotion to 
cleanliness seems a hopelessly quixotic effort. 
     But sweeping up is one of the few ways that women in the camps can 
exercise some small bit of control over their daily lives. Even with the 
prospect of returning to their homeland growing bright again, so much else is 
a shambles. 
     With dusk, despite all efforts, order vanishes. In the tents of recently 
arrived refugees, small children often vomit for days before getting 
accustomed to the food, and across the camp infants and toddlers cry--off and 
on--throughout the night, which means that the women go without sleep as they 
attempt to comfort their children. 
     Perhaps most disconcerting for many of these women, who fled from homes 
in small villages surrounded by fields and trees, is this nocturnal noise 
that is a byproduct of living in a sea of people. At this camp, the largest 
in Macedonia, about 30,000 refugees are all but stacked on top of one 
another--a city by any estimation. 
     "The first night I came here, I felt I was in a huge, dark cave. There 
was noise from every side, but I could not see anything," said Fiza Jashari, 
33, who has spent about a month in the camp. 
     For some women, the night brings something worse than sleeplessness. 
Women have begun to come forward to report that they are being physically 
abused by their husbands. One was knifed and another was beaten with a hammer 
here, according to aid workers. Many less extreme cases go unreported, aid 
workers believe. 
     "The realities for the women in the camps are harsh," said Nancy 
Shalala, a spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services, which runs one of the 
camps. She was visiting Cegrane to discuss with other aid workers how best to 
protect women from abuse. 
     "Most of the trauma is psychological, but in this situation, the men 
feel they've been stripped of the ability to defend their families. They 
perceive that they've failed, and some of them take it out on the women," 
Shalala said. 
     In traditional Kosovo Albanian society, women are unaccustomed to 
talking about themselves, much less complaining about the conditions of life 
or about their treatment by their spouses. Ask them how they feel about 
something and most likely they will shrug and say they are managing. 
     But ask them about conditions for their families and suddenly they 
become expansive. For they are the defenders of family, the ones responsible 
for creating a home life. 

     Re-Creating Their Home Environments 
     Women are in the majority here. In absolute numbers, they represent 52% 
of the refugees, but in the 15-to-44-year-old group, they are 
disproportionately represented, said Monika Brulhart, a social worker with 
the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. This means that they 
bear the brunt of the physical and psychological work of taking care of the 
family, she said. 
     "In a way, every woman is trying to create the environment that they had 
at home. These aren't really conditions for doing that, but we try; we feel 
we have to try," said Flora Rexhepi, 28, a mother of two small children, who 
fled here with her immediate family. 
     "Everyone is sad inside, so we are doing everything we can--washing, 
sweeping, cooking--just to forget the past and to not think too much," she 
     A short woman with wavy dark hair, Rexhepi sat tensely on the edge of a 
cot in her tent as she talked, twisting her daughter's T-shirt in her hands. 
She is teaching English to primary school students in the camp, as she did at 
home, and like many of the women here, she keeps her tent immaculate. She 
spends an hour and a half each morning airing the nine heavy woolen military 
blankets that serve as covers and rugs, hanging them on the chicken wire 
fencing that encloses the camp. 
     For most of the women in most of the camps, the most humiliating aspect 
of life is the lack of adequate bathrooms. But the most exhausting is the 
lack of a kitchen and washing facilities. Women here typically spend many 
hours of every day literally on their knees--scrubbing pots, washing clothes, 
making up their tents. 
     "The hygienic conditions are terrible," said Myrvete Mehmeti, 23, who 
came to Cegrane from a small town in southern Kosovo, a separatist province 
of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia. Mehmeti is living in a 
10-by-10 tent with her sister, her brother and his wife and five children. 
     "It's not so bad for the children, because we can wash them in the tap, 
but for a woman there is nowhere to go." 
     The women do not want to undress at the outdoor communal tap, she said, 
and there are no showers at the camp. 

     Fruitless Search for a Bathtub 
     "We have gone down to the village and knocked on people's doors and 
begged them to let us take a bath. But there are so many refugees staying 
with families there that they just slam the door. It's humiliating to have to 
ask a stranger for such a thing," she said. 
     It had been weeks since anyone in the small town a few hundred yards 
from the camp would let them use a bathtub, she said. 
     The situation is perhaps even worse for Bedrije Vashani, an unemployed 
factory worker who received unemployment assistance before she came here but 
brought no savings and has no relatives in foreign countries to send her 
     When she went down to the town of Cegrane to beg townspeople to let her 
take a bath, they charged her 2 German marks--about $1. She has taken three 
baths in five weeks and has no money for a fourth. 
     Although it is nearly summer, she was wearing a heavy wool sweater, 
which has begun to smell of dried perspiration, but which she said she has no 
choice but to keep wearing because she cannot afford to buy a summer shirt. 
     For all the women at the camp, doing laundry is a backbreaking task that 
first involves hauling water in buckets or in large plastic jugs from a 
communal tap, often hundreds of feet from their tents. 
     The only way to heat the water is to leave it sitting in the sun. Then 
it is poured into plastic tubs, soap is added, and the women kneel on the 
ground, scrubbing each item of clothing. New water must be added, sometimes 
two or three times, to wash out the soap, and then the whole process is 
repeated for the next batch of clothes. 
     Still, doctors and social workers say that, overall, the women are in 
better shape psychologically than the men. That is due in large part to the 
amount of time they spend working. 
     "Most of the time, you'll see the men sitting in the tents--smoking, 
brooding--and that leads to depression," said Visar Nushi, a doctor from 
Kosovo who works with Doctors of the World. 
     Crucial to the women's psychological health seems to be their ability to 
feel that they are successfully creating a home. Nowhere does this seem truer 
than at Senekos, one of the smaller camps, which is operated by Mercy Corps 
International. Its claim to fame is that it has field kitchens, run by the 
refugees, that serve one hot meal a day to every person in the camp. That 
task gives back to the Kosovo Albanian women a central role in family 
life--that of the cook, the provider of food. 

     The Therapy of Cooking 
     On a recent morning, the kitchens, which are no more than large tents 
with massive stoves and cutting boards, were full of women and men who were 
cooking enormous vats of cabbage seasoned with onions, tomatoes and meat. 
Each of the kitchens makes enough for 530 people, according to the cooks. 
     "When I first came here, I missed cooking a lot, because I was used to 
doing it in my home for my family, my parents, my cousins. It is our 
tradition to eat a hot meal together in our home every day," said Bahrije 
Baftiu, 42, a lively woman with muscular arms who kept tossing her bangs away 
from her eyes as she struggled to stir the stew. 
     "Now this is our home, and we are trying to create a lot of the things 
that we had in Kosovo," she said. "This is our garden, although we have no 
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