The refugees who poured out of Kosovo have lost everything: their homes, their possessions and their livelihoods. But one man is trying to give back to them that which matters most - their identities. James Dalrymple reports
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FOR 10 WEEKS now we have watched them pouring over the mountains from Kosovo into Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. A vast, unending flow of displaced people - from 100-year-old men to newborn babies - swept like so much human garbage before the path of a dark, violent force.

But on the television screen, electronic image instantly succeeds electronic image. The viewer is overwhelmed by the speed and the density of the pictures of suffering. They merge into one long, echoing cry - until finally we can take no more of it. We zap the machine in the corner of the room and make it be quiet.

But there is never any real escape. A growing army of respected figures are doing a good job of persuading us we were wrong from the beginning. Harold Pinter, Germaine Greer, Tony Benn and many others - icons of the moral Left - use their rhetorical power to make us feel like murderers who bomb hospitalised children in the name of freedom. They tell us that our politicians are liars, incompetents and war-mongers. They could be right: their case is certainly helped by the military fetishists of the Nato war-room in Brussels, whose insane daily press briefings make them look more and more like overblown characters in a Stanley Kubrick movie.

Just two months into the latest violent upheaval in history's favourite horror serial, and as a nation we are already being torn apart by it. In early March it was all about the good guys, us, and the bad guys, Milosevic and his thugs. Now nobody agrees about anything. Nothing is simple any more. The four horsemen who stalk the land today are rage, guilt, chaos and confusion.

So now may be a good time to silence the media bedlam, turn off the television and radio, and look hard at the photographs on these pages. Such pictures are not the normal fare for magazines such as this one: they are just a series of poorly lit, passport-sized mug shots, perhaps the least exciting images the camera is capable of producing. But it might be worth taking an hour on this summer morning in order to study each one closely. You will see the young and the old, the plain and the beautiful. Look at the eyes, particularly, staring out, perhaps asking us all a question. How deep is our commitment to them? Will we grow weary of them as we grew weary of other refugees in other lands? Are we willing to allow our young men to die for them?

Elegant, educated faces. Squashed, weather-beaten peas- ant faces. Tough faces. Frightened faces. Calm faces. Watchful faces. Women with carefully painted lips. Old women with- out teeth. After a while you realise you are looking at some-thing approximating a mirror image. These people may speak a strange language and come from an alien culture, but they are just like us.

Except that they have lost their country and their homes in just 10 weeks. Somewhere in this strange little gallery lies the reason why bombers are flying over central Europe for the first time in 54 years. For these faces are what the whole mess is all about.

We can only show a few scores of them. But among them are lawyers, accountants, actors, students, painters, farmers, shepherds, property agents, car dealers and politicians - every profession and occupation you can imagine. Perhaps there are even a few petty criminals, because not all victims are innocent. A few of these people were once wealthy, owning large houses and expensive cars. One or two were worth millions, it is said. But the majority of them were ordinary tradesmen, the bloke who unblocked the sink or the girl who sold fags and newspapers in the shop. Or rural peasant folk, herding sheep and growing vegetables, largely illiterate but with a rich pastoral culture that involved huge extended families living together in walled villages scattered throughout Kosovo. The use of the past tense is deliberate. The life they once led no longer exists.

And today, because of the rape of their homeland, they are all the same. They are all penniless, homeless, stateless - and, by and large, hopeless. Yet of the 900,000 ethnic Albanians driven out of their homeland, they are the lucky ones. They managed to avoid the festering dung-heap of the camps in Macedonia and Albania. They sneaked across the border, or talked or bribed their way past officials at the camps. Or they had friends or relatives who could give them a home.

It is estimated that there may be 40,000 refugees living in a score of places around the town of Tetova, in north-western Macedonia, and it is here that we discovered the incredible story behind these photographs and the man who took them. Almost every single one of these refugees seems to have turned up over the past two months at the small shop run by a local photographer called Izmai Luta, in response to a great act of kindness that has proved to be of immense practical value.

Working night and day through the queues that form outside his shop, the tireless Mr Luta has so far photographed 26,879 (at the last count) Kosovar Albanians. This provides them with a small thing, which they value above all others: the means to regain their status as individuals in a world that regards them as human beings with only a collective identity.

After each photograph is taken it is mounted on a Green Card identity book, issued by the Macedonian section of the International Red Cross. This document has become priceless to any refugee, giving them free access to medical help, the right to public transport, the right to shelter. Most important of all, it is recognised by all member countries of the United Nations as the next best thing to a passport. It allows any refugee to cross any friendly border.

Mr Luta has risked his entire business by his action. Normally he charges just under pounds 2 for each set of passport-sized pictures. But those shown here were given free to anybody who asked, costing him nearly pounds 60,000 in lost profit, and about pounds 20,000 in the cost of film and paper.

He refused to discuss his project on the grounds that his English is poor and he was too busy, but his assistant Naim Shala, a Kosovar Albanian refugee who was once a photographer in Pristina, said, "In a world full of men with guns, and politicians who promise the world and give nothing, Mr Luta has become something of a saint among the Kosovars.

"These people have no money, and when they first started to come to him, pleading to have their little picture taken, he knew what his duty was. He advertised his free service every day in the newspapers and the people came in their thousands. There were long queues outside his shop, and Luta did not turn anybody away. He has worked himself to exhaustion.

"He has hundreds and hundreds of films, showing thousands of faces. The photographs mean that people who had lost hope now have a piece of paper giving them status. He has also compiled a record of names and faces, which will be invaluable to historians. These people have somehow been joined together in this one little shop, and from chaos there is a kind of order, thanks to him."

Word of the photographer of Tetova has now spread throughout Europe. Half a dozen governments and some private charities have offered to take his pictures and put them on exhibition around Europe. A couple of organisations have even offered him money as a reward for his humanitarian work.

Mr Luta, hard at work as always, says that he will not accept any payment for his work. But he will provide the pictures of his Kosovars to anyone who wants to show them. He says he wants the world to see the faces of those who have been so wronged, and to consider the terror and heartbreak that lies behind each face. He won't win any awards for his photographic artistry. Not in this world, anyway. But as a document presenting a case for the use of force against ruthless barbarism, it is an instrument of mute, elegant power.

For those who have decided that the actions of Nato are no less barbarous than those of Milosevic's men, there is an interesting sideline to this. Every single one of those photographed in Mr Luta's little shop - all 26,879 of them to date - told him, because he asked them all the same question, that their one fear is that the West will halt the bombing and Milosevic will get a deal.

Then, they say, they may never go home. 2