A flicker of hope amid the ruins

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The Independent Online
JUNIK IS no longer at war. The sprawling collection of charming old stone houses which have stood the 20th-century test of warfare pretty well, and garish new brick and plaster scarred by bullet holes and artillery, is not an active front line any more. But nor is it much of anything these days.

The main street, patrolled by a uniformed traffic policeman, is deserted save for a couple of elderly men, one wearing the traditional Albanian felt hat. The policeman is jovial, assuring visitors that everything is quiet and returning to normal. "A lot of people are coming back," he says cheerily. "It's non-stop, and there are normal buses to Gjackovice and Pec."

He points to a small apartment building, where a couple of children are playing in the ruins of kiosks. In the garden are people who have come down from the hills - a strange sight for Western eyes sickened by seeing the plight of refugees driven into the woods from their villages. It is their safe return home that is a primary aim of sending 2,000 unarmed international observers to Kosovo.

But since reality in Kosovo has yet to catch up with the deal-makers in Belgrade and abroad, these returning refugees had one thing in common: they are all Serbs.

"There are families coming back, but only old people or children - the young people are afraid," says Zorica Miroslavic. "Seventy per cent of [the people of] this village are in Albania - all the young are in Albania."

She fled the fighting, since she clearly shares many Albanian sentiments (such as her statement that "for the past 10 years we have had no rights") but felt able to return to a village still housing military forces.

As we walked around, an elderly Albanian woman, her head swathed in white cloth, approached. "I'm tired, I'm alone and I'm living only with my God," she said. He was all she had relied on, since she had no family. But even her mosque came under attack. Now two Serb flags are stuck into shell holes in the topless minaret.

"There's no school here, all the teachers are in Albania. There are no shops, you can't buy anything," Ms Miroslavic continues, amid the desolation. "For 20 years we lived well with the Albanians. All these empty houses are no good."

Nato recognises that refugees will not return home unless they feel safe, which is why the international community is sending 2,000 "compliance verifiers" to monitor Yugoslavia's withdrawal. As Nato spy planes began flying over the province last night, the advance team of observers arrived in Pristina. The main team is due today and the US is set to propose its own candidate to head it, most likely William Walker, a former American diplomat.

"When the observers come, everybody will come back," says Hajira Kukic, a Bosnian Serb refugee from the town of Prijedor who now lives in Junik. Her optimism is not shared by Ibrahim Rugova, an Albanian political leader in Kosovo who lost support for his willingness to negotiate with the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic.

"The Serbian forces have not withdrawn from Kosovo. There has been only a repositioning of those forces and they have been entrenching themselves in many strategic points," said Mr Rugova. "There are new forces coming from Serbia."

The volatility of the situation was illustrated last night when three policemen were killed and two injured during an attack by gunmen on their station in Orlate, 30km west of Pristina.

It seems that the return of refugees is taking second place to the more practical task of assessing the scale of Yugoslavia's military withdrawal.

Reporters have seen several army convoys moving around the area in the past few days - lorry-loads of soldiers, armoured vehicles and mobile missile systems. We had no idea where they came from nor where they were going.

"We are still some distance from full compliance," a Nato spokesman admitted on Friday. "There is clear evidence that many army and special units normally based outside Kosovo are still deployed in Kosovo."

It is not clear how many army and police units Mr Milosevic is allowed to keep in Kosovo, since no one seems to know exactly what the peacetime norm is (to which he is supposed to adhere). But some of the 54 observers already in Kosovo believe the military verification job will not be hard - despite the international community's problems policing the many Bosnian ceasefires and heavy-weapons withdrawals.

"In terms of access, and our ability to verify whether the Serb army and police are withdrawing, I don't see any problem," says one US member of the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission (Kdom), which has been here since July.

Observers note the serial numbers of large equipment - tanks, anti-aircraft systems - then check for them in depots to ensure they had been properly withdrawn. The 54 Kdom members pulled out during the air-strikes scare and are only now going back to work.

Time is against the observer mission. In six weeks, winter will be here in all its harsh glory. Already the mountains near Pristina are tipped with snow, and the mercury is falling fast.

Unless the monitors are here and are free to move around, to prove to the wary Albanian population that Western promises can finally be believed, they will stand as witnesses only to another man-made humanitarian disaster.

"The foreigners must help us," Ms Miroslavic says passionately, as high in the sharp blue sky, a jet arrows silently by. Perhaps a message from Nato that this time the alliance will be true to its word.

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