How many more ghosts will trudge from the land of the lost?

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IN THE dark of the Kukes night it is dangerously easy to miss the open manholes in whose filthy depths swarm armies of fierce rats. On the main street near the Gjalicia hotel there is a hole large enough to swallow a small car. And then there is the three-legged dog - the TV crews call him tripod - who sleeps in the middle of the road. He has been stepped on four or five times that I've seen, but he still won't quit the square for somewhere safe. Tripod howls when somebody stands on him but never learns the lesson that his sleepy town has changed: there are thousands more trampling feet he must watch out for.

On my last night, I walked from the Bar America to our house by the lake. It was close to midnight and as we crossed the square I noticed that several thousand new refugees had arrived from the border.

The big white tents set up by the World Food Programme were already full to overflowing and so the new arrivals were sleeping in the open. I hate that old cliche "strangely quiet", but that is exactly what it was.

There were a few rustling sounds here and there as people tossed and turned under their blankets and I heard the occasional cry of a baby. But if I closed my eyes nothing would have suggested that about 4,000 people were camped out on the ground in front of me.

Six weeks into the war and they are still flooding across. Sixteen thousand crossed over last weekend. "Who could be left?" we have asked ourselves. How many more tractors and trailers full of weeping women and children, how many more lines of exhausted ghosts trudging out of the country of the lost? The answer, of course, is that there are many left inside: terrified and hungry, hiding in the forests or waiting for the Serbs to reach their house or their village. I walked on past the sleepers and the Albanian special police and the army lorries and the line of tractors that had formed up alongside our house.

From the road I could see that the lights were still on in the kitchen. "Easy" - the chef from Mitrovica I told you about last week - was sitting on the couch when I went in, staring out of the window into the blackness. His brother and wife had come out of Kosovo the day before and there had been a small celebration. Easy was happier than most of us had seen him in weeks.

But tonight the old sadness had come down again. It rolled in on top of him like a coastal fog and he was grasping for a fixed point. All of the things the rest of us hold on to for comfort; our homes, our jobs, our extended families, our physical landscapes, had been taken from him when the Serbs descended on his home town. "Do you still think we will go home?" he asked.

After the bombing of the Chinese embassy, and with thousands of refugees still arriving in Kukes, Easy was feeling very uncertain. I told him that this had been a dark week, but these were the weeks when leadership mattered, and if people kept their heads and remembered that nothing had happened to alter the justice of the cause then, yes, he and the other refugees would be going home.

But I don't think Easy believed me this time. He shook his head and said that he was tired and then went upstairs to the small room that he shares with Kia and the two children, Medina and Din.

I know that his wife Kia has been feeling the strain more than usual: as the weeks have dragged on and the war has seemed to go nowhere, she has been thinking about what will happen when the winter comes.

Will they still be refugees? Will the journalists with whom they have set up home move on, leaving them alone once more? And what will happen to her two beautiful children upon whom all these foreigners dote? Because sooner or later the excitement of those days - and they are in a strange way, very exciting - will lapse into the numbing tedium of long-term exile.

There is still hope now. But soon enough it will begin to depart. People still believe - not as much as they did at the start, of course - that Nato will triumph before the autumn. But hope is edging away, it is the kind of thing that departs incrementally, until one day the refugees may wake up and find they no longer have a country to call their own.

Kia and Easy are devoted parents. They do everything to protect Medina and Din from the reality of their situation. Every day Kia goes into the square and she can see the ragged and grime-encrusted shadows who queue up to get on coaches for the refugee camps of the south. They are her people but she does not want to join them on that journey into deep exile.

Conditions in our house may be crowded but it is a happy place, and being with foreigners offers some kind of protection. The other day she brought out some special clothes, something she had managed to save when the Serbs ordered them out: a pair of dungarees with a Mickey Mouse logo for Din and a pair of bright orange dungarees for Medina. And then clutching her children's hands tightly, Kia set off across the square, smiling and joking and refusing to be a refugee.

Watching them go, I remembered something Easy said to me when we visited one of the camps last week. "Refugee, isn't that the saddest word in the world?" he said. We had been watching a group of children reciting poems and making little patriotic speeches at a Unicef counselling session. A seven-year-old girl had stood up and announced that the Kosovars would never live with the Serbs again. "They think they have driven us out. But we will be back," she said. Other children followed. All recited speeches and poems in a similar vein, it was depressing stuff. And then they sang some songs of Kosovo and I looked around and saw that tears were streaming down Easy's face. And when he said he loved his country, I could believe that this was real patriotism; not jingoism or sentimentality but a statement of true belonging.

I left Kukes yesterday and I am writing this column in Rome, on a day brimming with the heat of early summer. How strange it is to be here among the great treasures of a lost empire, to walk the ancient streets and to find myself seeking among the crowds the faces of those I have left behind. Easy and Kia and Medina and Din, Arber and Bekem. My friends with no country, I will remember you.

On the way out of Kukes I queued at the helicopter pad next to the Italian refugee camp, waiting for one of the United Nations choppers that flies between Northern Albania and Tirana. A refugee had come with a desperately sick child. The little girl had contracted some disease and needed to be transferred to hospital abroad. Her father was told that he could not come with her. I don't know why. Bureaucracy, rules, regulations. As the chopper lifted into the sky and the rotors blew dust across on top of us, the man covered his face and wept. And then it was my turn to go. Seventeen-year-old Arber - he is the youngest of our translators - had come to see me off. As the chopper climbed above the camp, I saw Arber giving me a V-for-Victory sign and then as we rose higher I saw the new line of refugee tractors that was coming down from the border in the clear May sunlight.

The writer is a BBC News Special Correspondent