Rebuilding Kosovo

Former Peace Corps volunteers aid refugees


Betty and Bob Poynter, who spent four months volunteering in Mitrovisa in northern Kosovo, said they were struck by how similar the people in Kosovo seemed to the couple's neighbors in the Rim country.

The Poynters spent most of their time in the war-torn country providing shelters for people living in bombed-out homes, converted cow sheds or summer tents with no floors.

The people in Kosovo, they said, are much like they are in the Rim country -- sophisticated, well-educated, hardworking middle-class people who love and care for their homes and families.

"One thing that really affected me," Betty said, "we went out one day to a house that had been destroyed. I saw how they had landscaped and gardened. I thought how much they were like Bob and me."

The two former Peace Corps volunteers were commissioned by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to provide disaster relief through its private company, Urban Systems Incorporated.

When Bob and Betty were first married, they worked in Africa with the Peace Corps. When their son was born, Bob went into construction and Betty taught at a junior college. Later, when their son was a senior in high school, they both changed careers, going back to the work they loved to do around the world -- work that would take them to Tanzania, the Sudan, El Salvador, Ethiopia, South Africa, Egypt, Mexico and Colombia.

Although they had seen areas of poverty and people struggling to survive around the world, little of what they experienced prepared them for the devastation they found in Kosovo.

"Kosovo was really our first assignment for disaster relief," Bob said. "We took the contract to experience that. There was so much destruction by the Serb army. In the region we went to, there were over 9,000 homes destroyed. It was certainly the most devastating thing we've ever seen. To prevent the Albanians from ever coming back, they destroyed all the records in the country. They just destroyed the country."

Betty said the Kosovar Albanians surprised the world when they returned to their burnt and gutted homes to live.

"It's a very beautiful country," Bob said. "We could certainly understand why they wanted to go back to Kosovo."

When the Kosovar Albanians fled the country, their families were split up. Many returned to find their relatives in mass graves or among the bodies found in wells, Betty said. They were unrecognizable except for their clothing.

The Poynters worked with a man and his 10-year-old son who had witnessed the killing of 34 members of their family. They said the father and son had been spared so they could live with the tragedy and tell their story to others. Their home had been destroyed. They had nothing but the land left, but they refused to leave.

The Poynters said they knew they had to work quickly when they found people living in flimsy tents, the burnt out shells of their homes and makeshift shelters.

They found one family of 18 living in a converted cow shed.

The oldest member of the family told the Poynters, "Thank you if you do something, and thank you for coming, even if you don't do anything."

"I just went into the truck and cried," Betty said. "They credit Americans for saving them."

"We think the U.S. should have stepped in sooner to prevent the devastation," Bob said. "It was a foolish way to run a war. It was a big political decision to go in and bomb Belgrade. That's what brought the war to an end."

But by that time, hundreds of thousands of peoples had become refugees, he said.

Bob said he had gone to see a family and there were five children crowded in a small enclosure. "They were almost comatose. They were huddling together under one blanket. That's when we created the shelter," he said. "It was Dec. 1, and by the second week in December, we were scrambling for funds for plywood."

The couple put together an emergency program and got support from the U.N. and the U.S. to build prefabricated insulated houses with wood heating stoves.

"When the U.N. heard our plan, they laughed at us and said it was impossible," Bob Poynter said.

But U.N. officials had not seen the conditions of the villages, as Bob and Betty Poynter had. They could not know the resolve that inspired the couple of former Peace Corps volunteers.

Scottish Charities helped raise money for the project and the Albanians themselves went to work.

"I think what we did is start this project as a demonstration of what the Albanians could do for themselves," Betty said. "They built all of these and assembled them in two months."

The modulars houses were designed so that when the people rebuild their homes, they can take apart the temporary shelters and use the material.

The Poynters and the local carpenters they hired worked 12 to 16 hours a day for two months to provide the Albanian Kosovars with 421 rigid shelters.

The modular shelters not only provided warmth from the freezing winter weather, but jobs for people who had lost everything.

During the time the Poynters were in Mitrovia, the area was relatively peaceful, but as they were leaving Kosovo, demonstrators took to the streets and refugees with wheelbarrows full of their belongings fled the north.

"Betty and I were just mortified that it was happening again," Bob said. "These are just wonderful people, real sophisticated people, well educated people. It was hard to take. It was just like this thing happened in Payson."

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