For the past week, as Serb paramilitary police forces have blasted their way into Albanian villages and killed dozens of men, women and children on the pretext of flushing out terrorists, the telephones to Kosovo's capital Pristina and other towns in the province have been jammed with calls from relatives abroad, not just expressing concern but offering money and, if necessary, fighting men.
Most of these conversations take place late at night, because the phone lines are too poor during the day. Nobody, it seems, minds being called at 3am - many are too anxious to sleep properly and are sitting up with relatives and friends drinking raki and trying to imagine what their lives will be like if they are caught up in a full-scale conflict.
"Several friends have called in the past few days saying, 'I'm ready. My bag is packed and sitting in the hallway. I'll just wait for you to give me the signal and I'll be on my way to fight for Kosovo'," said a 20-year-old sociology student who preferred not to be identified.
After the first killings, in the village of Likoshane, families all over Kosovo rushed to buy up staple foods, detergents, medical supplies and fuel. The panic-buying did not last long, but it generated endless conversations about the practicalities of war.
"I came home and saw this huge pile of soap, antiseptic cream, disinfectant and aspirin and I thought, 'Didn't anyone think of buying some anti-depressants?'," the student said. "My father got mad at my mother because she had bought packets and packets of macaroni and he said, 'How on earth are we going to cook macaroni if there is no electricity to boil the water?' We figured out the best method would be to soak the macaroni in cold water overnight and then we could eat it for breakfast."
Kosovo has been on a slow-burning fuse since at least as far back as 1987, when the current President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, galvanised Serb nationalism by hailing the province as the cradle of the Serb nation and vowed to "give it back" to the Serbs who lived there in a minority of less than 10 per cent. Two years later, with Mr Milosevic installed as Serbian President, Kosovo lost its autonomy and the local Albanian leaders were replaced by Serbs in charge of a large, repressive police force.
"All my life I have been brought up to expect a war," the sociology student said. "We thought we would be the first ones, and we were really surprised when the fighting started in Croatia and Bosnia instead. People would go around talking in very specific terms: 'The war will start in September', or 'The war will start in six weeks'."
Some years ago, Serbs and Albanians went to school together and had little trouble forming friendships. But after more than seven years in which the Albanians have boycotted the Serbian state and set up their own parallel institutions, the word "Serb" has become synonymous with "enemy". Nearly all adult Albanians can speak Serbian, but a new generation of Kosovo Albanian children who have never attended state school is now growing up resolutely monolingual. Since few Serbian families speak any Albanian, the two sides are literally losing the ability to speak to each other.
Young Albanians are forever under the watchful eye of the Serb thugs who lurk on street corners. Demonstrations are broken up with force, and if the participants are not beaten with police batons they are often attacked on their way home. And yet, few outside the combat zone, in the rural Drenica region, west of Pristina, are taking the opportunity to flee abroad before a conflict erupts; if anything, the tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians living in Western Europe and beyond are considering coming home to their families in their hour of need.
"I spent three years in London and maybe it was a mistake to come back," said Bajram, 29, a musician and medical student. "But if I left again, who would look after my father and the rest of my family? Our family is our life."
By unfortunate coincidence, the sociology student had just received a visa to Paris when the fighting started. "My mother urged me to go and stay out of Kosovo. But how am I supposed to go to Paris when this is happening?"Reuse content