A handful of rice. A tomato. A crust of bread. Asking Kosovo's refugees what they've had to eat on any particular day is one way to measure their tragedy.

Visiting "homes" is another.The lucky ones are crowded dozens to a house in the shrinking areas still controlled by the Ko-sovo Liberation Army, huddling on blankets spread over dirty wooden floors. The less fortunate sleep in open fields near houses.

The most hopeless cases - an estimated 50,000 - are scattered in the forests and mountains. They fled there in past weeks to escape a Serbian crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians that left dozens of towns and villages in ruins.

And summer will soon end. With fields left unharvested and livestock scattered or dead, human rights workers are warning of an even bigger tragedy once the harsh Balkan winter arrives.

"What can we do if people stay in the hills and do not return to their homes before winter? Not very much," humanitarian agency worker Fernando del Mundo said. "We are afraid that people are just going to die."

The KLA is fighting for independence for Kosovo, a province of the Serb republic of Yugoslavia where ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 percent of the population.

Kosovo's refugee tragedy seems at first glance like a replay of the Bosnian crisis. But while less people have been made homeless in Kosovo, the chances of disaster are greater.

With Bosnian front lines relatively stable for much of that war, hundreds of thousands of refugees were able to settle in friendly territory relatively quickly after fleeing. That eased the task offeeding and sheltering them.

But fighting between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian rebels and an alliance of Serbian police and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army has produced no such status quo.

Most weeks, several villages go up in smoke in the hunt for separatists, swelling the pool of the homeless. Often, aid convoys arrive to find that the refugees have fled somewhere else because of new fighting.

Local and international medical workers say children with dysentery have died because their parents feared passing Serb police checkpoints for treatment.

Serbian authorities assert nothing will happen to non-combatants wanting to return home. The refugees say otherwise.

Agram Kryezin fled his village in the central Drenica area a month ago, leaving fields of wheat and corn, three cows, several goats and some chickens. The lost harvest has left him and his family of 10 with no winter provisions.

"But we cannot go back," he says, speaking near the village of Shkoze, about 30 miles southwest of Pristina. "The police are in our house. They burn our fields."

Kryezin, 24, says that of the five neighbors who went back to Buba-vec village to check on their property, three were killed and the two others were missing.

Soeren Jessen Petersen, a senior UNHCR official, warned recently that unless people were allowed to return home "we would have many, many people dying in the winter."

But even some of those allowed to go back cannot live normally.

Del Mundo, who works for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says ethnic Albanian farmers told a recent UNHCR mission to Ade village, west of Kosovo's capital Pristina, that Serb police prevented them from taking in the harvest.

In the Drenica region, the situation is already dire.

Each day, Merita Toci shares a little more than two pounds of rice with 10 other people.

She shushes a visitor who asks if she's hungry, pointing at the wide-eyed waifs around her sharing the thin-walled wooden school house serving as their shelter. "I can't say `yes' in front of them now, can I?"

But 2-year-old Jedmine Hoti is not fooled. "I'm hungry," she wails. Her grandmother says the child subsists on bread crusts. Her own meal of the day was a tomato.

Only a few miles away, corn nods on the stalk and a summer wind rustles fields of wheat. Cows wander the roads in villages where Serb police are the only residents and graffiti proclaims: "I'm not only perfect, I'm also Serb."

"You have the irony of a rich, fertile country and some people starving because they cannot harvest," said del Mundo.