The evening skies over Ren Obrigewitch's house have a welcomed sound: peace.

Since March, the 35-year-old University of Montana graduate has eaten his supper to the sounds of NATO warplanes roaring over his home in Macedonia on their way to bombing missions in Kosovo.

For 78 nights, Obrigewitch could set his watch to the 10:30 p.m. ritual and steel himself to thoughts that he, his wife, Kelly Braun Obrigewitch, and their 3-year-old daughter, Lily, were 20 miles from war and thousands of miles from their families in Wibaux and Big Sandy.

Over a crackling cellular connection at a restaurant near his home in Skopje, Macedonia, Obrigewitch said on the eve of Thursday's peace agreement that he is cautiously optimistic the war will end.

"We're all hopeful things will become better, hopefully," he said. "The refugees want to go back, that is their home. I can understand that, that they want to go back to their lives, but we are all preparing for the worst, for destroyed homes and for land mines. The process of going home will be a slow one."

After receiving a history degree at UM in 1985, and a master's degree from the American Graduate School of International Business in Arizona, Obrigewitch and his wife, Kelly, moved to the Balkans in 1993 to work for Mercy Corps International, a nonprofit international humanitarian organization that provides destitute countries with emergency relief and support for long-term recovery.

Obrigewitch is the senior finance manger for the Mercy Corps' Kosovo relief effort, overseeing the operation of Macedonia's two refugee camps, including the handling and distribution of food, clothing and emergency supplies for the camp's 28,000-plus ethnic Albanians, along with 220,000 refugees living with host families or in abandoned buildings in Macedonia. His wife, Kelly, a UM graduate in nursing, is a medical officer for the American Embassy in Macedonia.

They've seen poverty and economic hardship. But nothing could prepare them for the ethnic war and the human suffering that unfolded before their eyes, Obrigewitch said.

"We have been in the region for six years, but the last several months has actually been a shock to us," Obrigewitch said. "You go to the border and see thousands of people in shock, with nothing. Tens of thousands of people who have been uprooted, robbed of everything they have and forced to live as refugees.

"When it all broke out, it just overwhelmed all of our capabilities. And the looks on their faces told a thousand stories. It's overwhelming."

Obrigewitch said he threw in the corporate towel and sought humanitarian work after "it came to the point where I was no longer into helping someone else make a buck." But he did not expect to live and work on the edge of war.

"Most of my peers are working all over the world in banking," Obrigewitch said. "We try to live as normal a life as we can. We have friends in the community, and Lily goes to school, and we live in a small house in a neighborhood. It is unnerving to think about the war and I don't want to call it compartmentalization, but we try to deal with it the best way we can by going to work and doing family things. Our lives would be totally disrupted if we focused on the war."

The fear of death and the unending stream of human suffering is kept in check by the knowledge their efforts are providing immediate relief to people in need.

"The love of my job and the belief in what I'm doing is right keeps me going," he said. "We believe we are making a direct impact on peoples' lives."

Their commitment though, has not been without tests. On March 25, war tensions had risen to a level of violence that pulled even the Obrigewitches into the maelstrom.

"Kelly had just left the American Embassy, she was one of the last people to leave, and as she left a crowd booed her, ready to storm the embassy," Obrigewitch said. "After she left, the crowd destroyed the building's windows and destroyed the Mercy Corps vehicles. It was very tense for all of us, especially for Americans."

It was later reported by th

e international press that more than 2,000 protesters gathered at the embassy shouting anti-NATO slogans and throwing gasoline bombs at the building. Riot police were able to disperse the crowd after the damage was done.

In the following days, a Mercy Corps warehouse manager, a Kosovar Albanian in his mid-50s, was mysteriously killed in the warehouse and the organization's warehouse in Pristina was burned to the ground, destroying about a $1 million worth of food and clothing supplies.

As the refugees began arriving to the camps and sharing their war experiences with relief workers, Kelly has been documenting the cases of physical abuse, rape and other suffering, Obrigewitch said. She is gathering and protecting survivors of village massacres to be witnesses if war crimes trials take place, he said.

Although the war has ceased, pain and suffering will continue, said Mercy Corps representative Laura Guimond, from the organization's headquarters in Portland, Ore.

Guimond, who is in constant communication with the relief effort in the Balkans and has worked there herself, said the situation is still fraught with tension and unknowns.

"About 50 percent of the homes have been destroyed and about 70 percent of the homes have been damaged," she said. "Livestock has been eliminated, and basically we aren't going to find much when we get back in."

Although the peace process remains fluid, the United Nations has moved ahead and divided Kosovo into seven regions of responsibility for the major relief organizations, Guimond said.

Mercy Corps has been given western Kosovo, an area which was home to about 375,000 before the war. Humanitarian responsibilities of the other six regions have been assigned to CARE, Oxfam, Action Against Hunger, International Rescue Committee, Children's Aid Direct, Catholic Relief Services and others.

"All of the organizations are in very close contact and there is a great effort not to duplicate work and build on each others strengths," Guimond said. "The rebuilding process includes rebuilding structures and roads, but also of society."

Mercy Corps has prepared for the challenge by stockpiling food and other emergency essentials. Relief workers are hustling to distribute about 400,00 food kits. The kits contain a three-day supply of sardines, bread, jam, milk and water, she said. Workers also are distributing family cooking kits, sanitary kits, seeds and agricultural supplies.

Although the border may be open, the process of returning home will be difficult because most of the refugees had their identification papers taken or burned by Serbian forces, Obrigewitch said. "They don't exist on paper," he said.

The possibility of lengthy delays at the border, combined with the likelihood of hidden land mines, are worrisome. The process to return refugees to their homes could take months and tents in refugee camps are not winterized, Obrigewitch said. "It is a very large concern," he said. " The refugees can't go right back in … and winters here are cold."

Monday - 6/14/99

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