Focus; Most locals stayed away from Racak last week after the massacre of 45 of the Kosovan village's menfolk. Those who appeared had a terrible tale to tell
The shocking thing about the slaughter at Racak last weekend is not the blood-soaked blankets and towels still lying around the village mosque, or the rumpled plastic sheeting, also smeared, left behind when Serbian security forces seized the evidence.

Nor is it the odd blood stain and bullet casing on the hilltop overlooking Racak, where last Saturday morning the bodies of 45 men were found. Temperatures have dropped sharply in the past week, and approaches to the hill are slippery with snow and ice. Freezing fog shrouds the deserted valley below, amplifying the silence. What sounds there are come from abandoned farm animals wandering the village and occasionally putting their heads in the mosque as if looking for their owners. The only people they find there, however, are journalists and "peace verifiers" from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (Osce), trampling unheedingly in muddy hiking boots where Muslims would tread only in stockinged feet.

Such petty sacrilege is meaningless, however, compared with what happened here a few days earlier. Many of the men whose bodies were laid out in the mosque had been shot at such close range there were powder burns on their temples. Several had had their eyes gouged out and hands cut off; one had been decapitated. While some were young enough to be possible recruits for the Kosovo Liberation Army, the majority were middle-aged or older, up to the age of 70. Nor were they allowed to rest in peace - two days after they left Racak, the Serbian police returned, this time to take 40 of the bodies by force and carry them off to a morgue in Pristina, the Kosovan capital.

It is a journey that takes less than an hour, and this is what jolts the first-time visitor to Kosovo. Far from being up some muddy track accessible only in a four-wheel drive vehicle, the horrors of Racak can be witnessed without leaving tarred roads. The village is on the outskirts of Stimlje, with a police barracks five minutes away by car. Far from being some poverty-stricken hamlet, Racak looks prosperous: remittances from family members working abroad have given every solidly-built alpine-style home a satellite dish. This is recognisably Europe.

When William Walker, head of the Osce monitoring mission in Kosovo, arrived on the scene last Saturday he had no hesitation in calling it a massacre by the Serbian police who had sealed off Racak the day before. One man who came out of hiding said that some men from the village had been separated from their families, taken to the hill top and told to run. Then they were shot down.

Mr Walker's unequivocal statement not only revived the possibility of Nato air strikes on Serbia, it called his own mission into question. The Osce "peace verifiers" are supposed to be guaranteeing a ceasefire agreed in October, when President Slobodan Milosevic, under threat of air attacks, promised to scale down his forces in Kosovo. Their brutality against the Albanian Muslim majority had caused such international disgust that Nato bombing seemed a distinct possibility, if only so it could be seen to be doing something about it.

Some Serbian forces were withdrawn, and the violence did decline, encouraging some Albanians to return home, although conditions have never improved to the point where any sense of security has been established. The monitors, unarmed at Belgrade's insistence, have been slow to deploy: of the planned 2,000 - a figure which is being described with increasing frequency as theoretical - fewer than half have arrived. They rush about in their orange vehicles, but they are frequently kept in the dark or ignored.

The Kosovo Liberation Army has used the lull to re-arm: it claims to be laying its hands on the kind of anti-tank weaponry which could undermine the Serbian forces' military superiority. It has not refrained from ceasefire violations; yesterday and the day before, Osce was negotiating with the KLA for the release of five kidnapped Serb civilians. Hence the demands by the "contact" group of ministers in London on Friday, along with condemnation of Belgrade, that the KLA should cease its "provocations".

GIVEN THE rest of the world's tolerance for viciousness in Kosovo, events might have trundled along in this unsatisfactory fashion for a while longer. But Racak seemed impossible to ignore, especially when Mr Milosevic's response was to order Mr Walker to leave, and to refuse entry to Louise Arbour, the international war crimes prosecutor, and her investigators. She has now returned to the Hague after a couple of days' fruitless wait in Macedonia. Mr Milosevic also kept Nato's two most senior generals waiting for the best part of 24 hours before allowing them to deliver their warning that air strikes might be back on the agenda.

All this might seem foolhardy if one did not sense that the Serbian leader, who used the Kosovo issue to rise to power, knows what he is doing far better than Nato does. Mr Walker's expulsion has been "frozen", but the attention of the international community was distracted by the row over him and Ms Arbour. His credibility is being called into question; there have been claims, dismissed by visitors to the scene, that the dead were KLA fighters who were taken out of their uniforms and put into civilian clothing, then mutilated to give the appearance of an atrocity.

A mysterious videotape allegedly casts doubt on the massacre theory, but no one has seen it apart from a couple of French journalists, and their colleagues are pointing out that France is traditionally sympathetic to Serbia while a team of Finnish pathologists has been allowed in to work alongside the Serbian medical examiners. Mr Milosevic is a master of the well- timed concession. But pathologists are saying nothing until their final report, which is likely to take another week or more.

In the meantime, a sense of muddle has been created, and world outrage is successfully being dissipated. One can only ask: who is acting as though they have something to hide?

If you linger long enough in Racak, one or two people appear. We were talking to an old man who had come to care for his neighbour's animals when we saw a couple of younger women, looking citified in their smart wool coats, nervously returning to their home to pick up some clothing and frozen food.

Nesefaje, 39, and Vetire Veseli, 36, are married to brothers and live in the same house. They invited us into their living room, where the police had kicked in the door, tipped over the stereo and scattered tapes all over the floor. But the laws of hospitality were obeyed; a bottle of coke was produced as Nesefaje described what had happened a week earlier.

"IT WAS Ramadan, and we were up early to have our meal before daybreak," she said. "The police came at 5.30am, and caught many people still asleep. The menfolk were the ones who died. We were able to get away over the hill and hide. The police found us and beat up our husbands, but at least they escaped with their lives. We could hear the screams coming from those poor men who were taken up the other hill."

At this Nesefaje shuddered, and her sister-in-law, who had been struggling to control herself, burst out: "They weren't just killed, they were massacred! Our cousin had his eyes torn out!" Vetire's two young sons are still traumatised by what they saw and heard that day.

After dropping the women at the bus stop in Stimlje - their husbands had deemed it unsafe to accompany them - we drove two miles further on, along tarred roads, to meet the KLA. But whatever the state of their weaponry, no one can fault their dress sense: in their shiny black bomber jackets, without their automatic rifles, the men who stopped us at Petrovo could have passed without comment on the King's Road.

The local area commander, Shukri Buja, agreed to an interview, but shed no light on the claims and counter-claims over Racak. The KLA has admitted that nine of its men were lost in fighting near the village following an ambush which killed three policemen a week earlier, but the fighters' bodies were taken away for immediate burial. "The others were massacred because we had pushed back a force of 500 police and soldiers," boasted Buja. "We are growing in strength. In the past week we have destroyed four Serbian tanks."

This is little consolation to families such as the Veselis or to the 500 or so people living in the open in sub-zero temperatures. The KLA is fighting for an independent Kosovo, an aim not supported by the international community, which is insisting in the wake of Racak that talks on Kosovan autonomy must be resumed. The heaviest weapon likely to be deploy- ed against Mr Milosevic is Richard Holbrooke, the blunt American envoy who pushed through the October ceasefire.

Sooner or later, however, there is likely to be enough evidence about what took place in Racak to settle most doubts, and the question will return: what happens now? If the perpetrators are allowed to get away with it, will the battle to keep Mr Walker in Kosovo have been worth it?