Steve Crawshaw reports on a war waiting to explode. Photographs by David Rose
THE desolate, Serb-ruled province of Kosovo is a place of malign surrealism at every turn. The strangenesses are peculiar enough. But even more disturbing is that lunacy eventually becomes a a form of normality.

Albanians form a 90 per cent majority here. And yet, Albanian children are banned from receiving ordinary education. Schools are reserved for the Serbs. Albanian children must crowd into private houses, taking their education in shifts from 7am to 7pm.

The pupils are crammed in, sometimes five to a desk: computer science in one room, physics in another, English in the living room downstairs. Pupils and teachers alike have come to take this extraordinary apartheid, first introduced by Slobodan Milosevic eight years ago, for granted. As in the old South Africa, a tiny minority rules over the huge majority. As in South Africa under apartheid, both sides are frightened of the other: the Albanian majority is frightened of the brute force of the Serb minority, which controls army and police; the Serb minority is frightened that the Albanians will one day wreak terrible revenge.

Already, neither side can imagine meeting across the divide. Albanian and Serb children sometimes play in a single playground - but always at different ends. "We never play or talk. Sometimes, we fight," says an eight-year-old Albanian child. Because? "Serbs are our enemy." A Serb child would give just the same answer.

Nationalism in Kosovo helped propel Milosevic to power 10 years ago. Many expected that Kosovo would be the first place in Yugoslavia to explode. In reality, an Albanian policy of non-violent resistance has meant that other wars came first. Now, however, it may be Kosovo's turn. There are isolated signs of hope. Renewed Albanian access to schools and universities has just been half-agreed, for the first time in eight years. Meanwhile, however, Serb forces have killed more than 100 Albanians in recent weeks. Both sides believe that things can only get worse.

As you pass through the armed checkpoints across the province, you meet Albanian families on the move - on tractors, on carts, on foot. They flee destroyed villages, and the further violence that they fear is is on the way. The EU has muttered vaguely, more in the hope that the problem will go away than with a determination to ensure a just solution. Even more than in Croatia and Bosnia, the world seems determined to look the other way.

Most Serbs and Albanians now regard war as inevitable. Serbs believe this to be their ancient "heartland"; Albanians, stripped of even the most basic rights, have begun an armed rebellion against the "occupiers". The destroyed houses in the Albanian hamlet of Prekaz, and the long lines of hastily dug graves in an open field, are likely to be only the first of many.

The headmaster at an unofficial Albanian school still hopes that international pressure will force the Serbs to compromise. But he admits there is little prospect. "If there's no solution to the Kosovo problem now - of course there'll be a war." Neville Chamberlain's comment on Czechoslovakia 60 years ago remains as valid for Kosovo today: it is in a far-off country, of which we know little.