Death and destruction haunt a child's world

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The Independent Online
JETON SAFAJ, a Kosovan Albanian boy aged 15, lost his childhood this summer on the day when a Serbian policeman came past the house where he was sheltering as a refugee, and ran his finger along his throat.

Jeton's father and the six other men in his extended family are dead or missing.

When he went back to the ruins of his home, he set to work, emptying a wheelbarrow full of rainwater and shovelling rotten peaches from the lawn where last summer he had played as a child.

It will be a Herculean task.His home has been looted by Serbian police units who took the fridge, washing machine, television and jewellery, and ran knives through the upholstered furniture.

The adjoining house owned by his extended family has been razed. Jeton's mother, Samje, wants to return to her home after two months on the run, but does not believe it is safe. Weeping all the time, refused to go upstairs, believing her bedroom had been booby-trapped.

In this valley, as in much of western Kosovo, all the houses have been damaged in a scorched-earth policy. Policemen still lounge among the ruins, a continually intimidating presence, belying Serbia's assurances that it is safe for refugees to return home.

Samje Safaj does not blame the Kosovo Liberation Army for her plight. "The KLA were trying to defend us," she says.

Forced from their homes by Serbian firepower, Kosovo's Albanians have taken refuge among their own. It is common to find 20 people sleeping in a room. But of the 300,000 people who have lost their homes, 50,000 are now living rough.

There are fears in the international aid community that refugees could become dependent on aid or hostages in an outbreak of ethnic cleansing.

The Serbs have set up 11 refugee camps, but more camps are springing up all over Kosovo. Wherever a few people are found clinging to a hillside, they get plastic sheeting for shelter and the most basic food supplies. Sanitation and clean water will follow as the aid workers acknowledge that securing a return home will take a long time.

A Red Cross document says that Kosovo's civilians are already "the main victims - if not the actual targets - of the fighting". It warns of the dangers of allowing refugees to become pawns in a political game, urging a settlement that will allow them to return home.

It is a forlorn hope. A leaked American initiative infuriated Kosovan Albanian politicians because it appeared to take the Serbian line, making no concessions to Albanian autonomy. "The Americans think we are clowns because we do not have a united leadership," said an Albanian moderate.

As Nato slides toward intervention, the lack of a clear end-goal makes such a military adventure hard to plan. Apart from imposing peace on Serbian forces from outside with Nato warplanes, Nato will also face the demand of Kosovan Albanians for independence.

This does not fit into Western ideals; policy-makers think a strong independent Kosovo would destabilise neighbouring Macedonia and Montenegro.

For Have Gashi, living with her five children in a plastic tent high on a hill, the Nato bombing cannot start too soon. Her husband is seeking asylum in Germany after being beaten by his Serbian employers for refusing to spy for them.

She has moved on every fortnight since she was forced out of her home three months ago. Kneading dough made from her European Union flour ration, she said: "We have no hope apart from God. We ran away with what we could carry, and that has been torn apart in our exile. The KLA had to start. We cannot live under Serbian oppression for ever."

David Loyn is a BBC World Affairs Correspondent