Ron Redmond, a former journalist, is a big man but he speaks softly, with the kind of voice you need to hear when you've walked for miles across swamps and through forests, when you've seen your husbands and sons killed and your daughters raped. A big voice, full of common sense and decency. When I encountered him he was the spokesman for the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees in Macedonia. These days he is doing the same job in liberated Kosovo.
I knew that he was there because I'd heard it from colleagues, and the other day I saw his name in the papers. He was still talking about refugees, about "ethnic cleansing" and arbitrary terror. But this time Ron Redmond was describing the fate of Serbs at the hands of Albanians. What a difference a few months make.
To be honest, I have been so caught up in a project here at home that I haven't been paying too much attention to what's been happening in Kosovo. Yes, I have been thinking about what happened to the refugees I had known, but Kosovo had begun to recede in my thoughts. It was seeing Ron Redmond's name in the papers yesterday that made me sit up. This is what he had to say:
"Serbs are being driven out by a method of intimidation which started with warning letters that demanded the transfer of ownership rights to Albanians and ended in physical assault, even murder."
What Ron Redmond describes is what every Western government who went to war over Kosovo knows: we have won a war but we are losing the peace. This was a war fought - we were told - to end "ethnic cleansing" in Europe. Mr Blair made this point passionately and correctly throughout the conflict; Mr Clinton did so in a memorable speech to American service personnel in Germany.
Whenever the war was questioned or criticised, our leaders stood on the moral high ground and cast rocks on their enemies, recalling (correctly, in my view) the horrors of Vukovar and Srebrenica, urging all of us to support a battle against Fascism. The war was cast as a defining moment for European civilisation, the point at which we cut loose from the atavistic demons that have tormented our times. This was the point of no return.
And it was an argument that most people supported. Sure, there were reservations (the idiotic comparisons between Milosevic and Hitler, for example, the killing of civilians in air raids that were badly planned or executed) but the majority of the population here and in the US went along with the war policy. What they did not sign up for was the counter-terror that has now been unleashed upon the Serbs of Kosovo by ethnic Albanians.
"It is inevitable... bound to happen... what did you expect was going to happen after all that suffering?" I hear some colleagues say. I will tell you what I expected. That, yes, reprisals were inevitable. Yes, thousands of Serbs would be forced out. Anybody who listened to the stories and opinions of the Albanian refugees arriving in Macedonia and Albania knew that the single biggest post-war crisis would come with the return of the same refugees to Kosovo. I lost count of the number of Albanians - ordinary people, not KLA activists - who said they could never live with Serbs again.
We knew that this was what people felt, and that the KLA would do anything it could to rid the province of people it hated. But we promised the Serbs that they would be protected. Perhaps, with hindsight, we may think that we promised the impossible. With so much hatred, did we have the right to make such a pledge? The truth is that we had no choice; as I said earlier, this whole enterprise was founded on ethical principles. And once you go down that road you set yourself a very high standard.
The cynical realpolitik that allowed the West to ignore what happened to the Krajina Serbs when they were driven out by the Croats in 1995 simply won't wash in these days of ethical foreign policy. And yet we hear surprisingly little from our leaders about the plight of the Kosovo Serbs. When Mr Blair visited he made all the right appeals for tolerance, and he was justifiably given a hero's welcome by the Albanians. But he tiptoed around the reality. Massacres of farmers; old women shot in their flats; KLA militants acting as judge and executioner. These are realities that call for tough language, and the willingness to take robust action.
The British and other troops on the ground are doing the best job they can; they are all that stands between Kosovo and anarchy. But they can't be everywhere. Soldiers are not policemen and shouldn't be expected to assume that role.It is a disgrace that the international police force for Kosovo has still not been deployed to anywhere near full strength. There are 65 UN police officers on patrol in Pristina - 65, in the most dangerous and volatile town in Europe! Bureaucratic delays, a less-than- effective UN administration in Pristina and a KLA that is hungry for power point to a crisis that seems likely to get steadily worse.
I noticed that a British paratrooper was quoted the other day as saying that in six months the Army could find itself fighting the KLA. It could be like Belfast, he said. Certainly the KLA - and it has some very dangerous people - has its eyes on the prize of total power. As the impatience of its leaders and foot soldiers grows, then the potential for conflict with the UN and the Kfor troops will increase. The Serbs are the victims now, but shall we face a day - not too far off - when anybody who opposes the KLA is targeted? If this was a war about tolerance and decency - and I believed it was - then we'd better act fast.
The alternative is a warlord state in Kosovo, a place not unlike neighbouring Albania, where the most ruthless and cunning come out on top. If we want to avoid the triumph of hyena politics we must commit however many troops and policemen - particularly police - it takes to ensure order in the short term. There should be a shake-up of the UN administration in Pristina and a vigorous determination to prevent the riches of foreign aid falling into the hands of the warlords.
All of that is easier said than done. But military and police power and economic aid do give the West some leverage. I doubt that it will prevent a KLA take-over in the long term, but it could stem the anarchy that threatens the present. The answer is not a shooting-match on the streets of Pristina (we would lose that, in the long term), but a determination to win the peace that is every bit as fierce and complete as that which won the war.
Maybe it is naive to believe that the Serbs can stay on in Kosovo. But they have a right to their land and homes. Ignore that, in the name of realpolitik, and you can kiss goodbye to ethics in foreign policy.
The writer is a BBC special correspondentReuse content