Assault on the Serbs: Traumatised and tired, the refugees came in cart s, trailers and on foot

Kosovo Exodus
THE EXODUS began at 8am and by dusk there was still thousands of people crossing the rugged border into northern Albania from the battleground of Kosovo. They came in cars and tractor trailers, in horse-drawn carts and on foot. Men, women and children, victims of "ethnic cleansing" organised by the Serbian forces now looting and burning their homes.

Across the mined border were heavily armed police, Albanian soldiers on one side and Yugoslav forces 200m away. The village of Dobrushte was belching smoke and flames, evidence that it had been torched by Serbian soldiers.

The refugees were among tens of thousands of people who streamed over the border, exhausted, frozen and traumatised, a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions in modern Europe.

As President Slobodan Milosevic's security forces rampaged across Kosovo yesterday, ethnic Albanians poured into neighbouring Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.

Some took flight voluntarily, seeking sanctuary; others were evicted at gunpoint from their homes by their neighbours and Serb paramilitaries and literally shoved over the borders.

The latest information to emerge from inside Kosovo is chilling. The killing sprees and random acts of savagery that were the Serbs' initial response to the Nato air attacks are being replaced by what is starting to be called genocide. The "ethnic cleansing" is determined and systematic.

Dozens of villages around the towns of Djakovica and Prizren have been cleared of Albanians and destroyed. And in the past 24 hours the Serbian machine has moved with a vengeance into the western town of Pec.

"They came into town, broke into apartments, and took everything they could," said Valdet Shoshi. "They said 'go'. They took away our cars and we left in trucks. Pec is empty, all the Albanians are gone."

He and other refugees from Pec said that Albanian-owned shops, homes and businesses had been vandalised and looted by Serbian forces and that soldiers were out of their barracks and camped out in Albanian-owned buildings. "It was army and police - criminals. They were wearing uniforms and black masks. They even searched our pockets and took all our money," said Mr Shoshi, who ran a pizzeria in Pec. "They were shooting inside, spraying the walls with bullets." He paused. "I don't know where my brother is." Similar stories were told by refugees fleeing villages in southern Kosovo.

"We were in the mountains hiding for three days because they burnt our houses," said Florija Rexhepi, who fled the village of Babaj Boks. "After three days we went to Djakovica to hand ourselves over to the Serbs."

She said the villagers decided to surrender because they had run out of food and were in a valley below a Serbian position. "We were afraid that if we didn't leave they would come and kill us all."

The villagers were stripped of all their money, their identity cards and their jewellery and the Serb soldiers at the border, in an act of spite, forced them to remove all number plates from cars and tractors and leave them behind. The villagers said that on the roads between Djakovica and Prizren they saw the bodies of at least 10 civilians lying by the roadside. As the tractor convoy moved towards the border, Yugoslav soldiers picked out men, pulled them out of the convoy and took them away. Their relatives do not know where they are.

They had also heard rumours of atrocities. "We heard all those who were sick and could not move have been killed," said Mr Shoshi. "We had not left our apartment since the Nato air strike began. They told us 'You asked for this: now get Nato to protect you'." There were plenty of eyewitness accounts of brutality and repression from refugees yesterday.

They told of kidnapping, looting and summary killings, of civilians being targeted in door-to-door raids, of machine-gunfire in the streets, of villages burnt to the ground. Thousands of men are said to have disappeared.

A middle-aged ethnic Albanian, wearing a traditional white felt hat, wept as he relived the trauma of his escape from the regional capital, Pristina. The nights were a time of terror when anything could happen, he said.

The ordeal of crossing the heavily mined border was too much for one woman, who fainted with shock when she arrived in Albania. A brother and sister near by said that their father had been shot in front of them by Serbs.

But the evidence is not just anecdotal. Officials from the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) spoke by satellite telephone to commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army at the weekend.

The commanders, whose accounts the OSCE regards as credible, described a mass killing near Velika Krusa, in southern Kosovo, the burning of large parts of Pec, and the use of civilians as human shields to deter Nato attacks on Serb military installations.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) predicted yesterday that more than 16,000 people would have entered Albania from Kosovo by the end of the day. The Albanian government says that 20,000 crossed on Saturday.

Braving snow and rain, smaller numbers of people also arrived in Macedonia, a tiny country which has already taken 20,000 refugees. They came mainly from border villages, which they said had been emptied and set ablaze by Yugoslav forces.

Lyndall Sachs, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR, said the numbers pouring into Albania suggested a mass flight was under way. "I would say 16,000 people crossing a border in a single day is a hell of a lot of people," she said.