Journey to the heart of a ravaged people
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
They were ghost towns, houses with gaping roofs and fire-scorched walls and bare rafters pointing cynically towards the heavens, inhabited by Serb special police squads, the only evidence of their Albanian owners the dirty washing still flapping on old clothes-lines, the school books strewn on the floor of a bookshop and the name of sweet store proprietor "A. Alimusaj" above a latticed window, through which poked the muzzle of a police sub-machine gun. Wild horses galloped through the streets outside. "Terrorists were to blame," thundered Major General Sletan Lukic of the Serb interior ministry forces. He used that word "terrorist" 65 times in nine minutes. Then I gave up counting.

Dogs, too, roamed the streets of Stari Rausic, and Gorni Streoc and Decani, feral animals which slunk into the bushes and stared at the horses as they reared and fled, dazzling silky brown manes in the afternoon sunlight, past shattered villas and gardens heaped with rubble. Each lane - and every third house - was now home to a clutch of purple-uniformed security police, Kalashnikovs in their hands, staring outwards from both sides of the road, up towards the towering mountains where clouds shuffled across the peaks of the Albanian border. Other policemen lay in the broken homes, facing north, towards the Metohija plain into which the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army had vanished.

"Yes, we only hold the road and a few metres on each side," one of the Serb security men admittedly quietly to me. "But we've unblocked the road and it's clear now." In the villages. He might have added. No, General Lukic insisted - a tall, plumpish man with dark eyebrows, a pale blue uniform, shoulders dazzling with gold-leaf insignia, increasingly exasperated by our questions. "No, we only fired at the houses in which the terrorists were hidden. You can see, can't you, the houses we did not have to fire at. And look, see where the terrorists dug their trenches among the homes."

There were trenches and ditches, newly dug, but not many untouched homes. It looked to me like every ethnically cleansed town I'd ever visited in Bosnia - complete with the silence, the wild dogs and the missing people. What happened in Decani?

True, a few - a very few, of the original Serb inhabitants were still there, waving cheerfully at us from behind rosebushes and thick hedges. Their homes had clearly been spared by the Serb security police. But not an Albanian resident was to be found. "The terrorists took over their homes when they blocked the roads, and they ordered the people to flee, and when they left the houses -- when we were attacking - many of the terrorists set fire to the homes." Or so General Lukic would have us believe.

But ask him, or ask Mr David Gajic, special representative of the Serb Interior Ministry, in the town of Pec, what happened to all those thousands of Albanians and a kind of silence ensues. Were we ignorant, they asked, of the way in which "terrorists" operated? Did we not know that they stored arms and ammunition in civilian homes? In the hot afternoon along Serbia's new frontline yesterday, it was a lesson ill-taken. How come the shops had all been looted? How come the furniture - beds, tables, chairs, linen, fridges and televisions - were all missing from those thousands of shattered houses?

And why did the three plain clothes Serb policemen look so happy as they sat swilling beer at a table outside an abandoned Albanian bar?

Down the street, not far from the municipal buildings (undamaged) and the police station (built 1930, also undamaged) three ladies from the International Red Cross sat in their white Range Rover handing out humanitarian pamphlets to a tall skinhead in police uniform with a dark blue flak jacket over his chest. They were waiting, ever so politely - for the Swiss are infinitely polite people - to ask the friendly Serb policemen what had happened to the prisoners.

It was a question I had put several times to General Lukic when he met us at the dining room of the Metohija Hotel, the tables piled with ham, cheese, soda water and chilled beer. "We don't have any prisoners," he almost shouted back at me. "It is very well known in the world that a terrorist does not surrender - usually."

Furthermore, General Lukic added, the army played no role in the one- month long operation against the Kosovo Liberation Army, an assertion made all the odder by our sighting of military patrols, their leaders in sunglasses and white headbands against the afternoon heat, standing with machine guns atop their armour.

There was then some muttering between messrs Lukic and Gajic after which the general admitted: "When I said we do not have any prisoners, we don't - but the army has." Having already told us that the army played no role in the Decani fighting, the press conference was now becoming weirder by the minute. We were told there were between "15 and 20 foreign mercenaries" as prisoners in army hands. Then there were 50 of them. I began to feel sorry for the Red Cross ladies down the road.

Would there be Red Cross visits, we asked. "Yes, of course." Would there be access whenever the Red Cross wanted to these prisoners? "Yes, of course - after the investigation is done. The Red Cross was pushing to be present many times during the investigations ... they wanted to talk to the terrorists. Such a precedent has never been set in the world - ever." The Red Cross would not get its instant access, we were informed, because its delegates supposedly passed on secrets from one prisoner to another.

Both senior security bosses told the same story about the origins of the fighting for the road between Pec and Prizren, the narrow Serb highway that lies parallel to the Albanian frontier beneath those craggy heights we had observed earlier. There had been repeated assaults by the Kosovo Liberation army, since December, but in late May its major objective - this according to general Lukic - was: "To gain control of the area along the section of the road between Pec and Decani because it wanted communications routes for arms smuggling and to provide areas to bring Albanians from western countries and even from the former Yugoslav republics.

"Some of these terrorists were trained in western countries and in Albania. They wanted as much as possible of the land on both sides of the road so they could move on to Klina and Prizren and then hold the area up to the Albanian border in the mountains."

A large number of houses had been turned in fortresses and used as bunkers. Or so the General told us. Save for one bunker, two trenches and a communication corridor made between two destroyed homes, we saw no evidence of this supposedly massive fortification.

That Serbs had been driven from their homes - and they are a small minority in the area - seemed to be true. Evidence from Serbian Orthodox priests later suggested that local Albanians had first tried to protect the Serb families - eight of whom, according to one priest, were later thought to have been executed. But did this really account for that untold number of deserted homes? Even deep behind the trees, we could see substantial villas burned out, farmyard cattle wandering along streams, whole trees carbonised by fire.

General Lukic led the way into the Decani police station, to a large backroom (a prison? I asked myself) in which were piled hundreds of weapons allegedly captured from the Kosovo Albanian guerrillas. There were old Second World War breech-loading rifles, 80 Kalashnikovs, two heavy machine- guns, rocket propelled grenades, two old and battered recoilless rifles and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, much of it tied up in crammed plastic boxes with Chinese lettering.

The Yugoslav army (and remember, it was not supposed to be involved), had earlier shown film of a white horse dying from gunfire wounds in a forest, its load of ammunition and rifles around it. The message was obvious, the weapons had come from over the mountains, from Albania.

There were other lessons for us yesterday afternoon on the Serb frontline. The security police took us up - just two miles from the ghost town of Decani - to the magnificent 14th-century monastery of Gracanica, built by King Milutin and one of the most impressive of all Serb churches of the Byzantine school.

The message? Of course, it was the old one: Kosovo is the heartland of Serbia. But we had arrived at an unfortunate time. Just outside the great church, with its staggering frescos, was a squad of sweating, angry Yugoslav soldiers. Several had been lighting candles in the church, others washing their dirty covered faces in the frozen water of an ancient stone fountain.

"No photographs," their sergeant screamed at us, as they put on their flak jackets and Russian-style steel helmets and picked up their rifles and ammunition clips. They stalked fearsomely beneath the old stone gateway and into the forest outside.

On a flimsy wooden balcony where a bearded monk served Serbian brandy on a silver tray, Father Sava (yes, he has his own website) told us of the Serb families he and his brothers sheltered, how the priests had opened their stables for the horses and cows of the refugees. "We are open to everyone who needs help," Father Sava told us in fluent English. "We would have been ready to protect the Albanians if they had come. But they didn't come."

We weren't surprised by his reply.

But where were they?