Everywhere is no man's land is

In Kosovo's divided capital, Pristina, city life goes on, writes Emma Daly (left). Yet just a few miles away, peasants weep over the charred bones of their families
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The Independent Online
THE LANDSCAPE of rural Kosovo west of Pristina is one of great natural beauty, ringed by snow-capped mountains but marred by wanton destruction.

The wooded hills are dotted with the charred ruins and roofless silhouettes familiar from the war in Bosnia, but there are few of the mined and razor- wired no man's lands, the muddy trench systems and bunkers built by armies dug in for the long haul.

It seems that Serbian security forces control most of the main roads, the towns and the border regions, leaving their enemies to roam the countryside. We explore in the comfort of someone else's armoured Land Rover or a dispensable hire-car, bonnet, windows and boot taped with the letters "TV". The roads sing beneath our tyres - a sign that tank tracks have scored the tarmac like the grooves on a record.

Pristina is not Sarajevo: the electricity supply works, there is constant water and, despite economic hardship, a normal shopping system and a few decent restaurants. But a 30-minute drive west, in the villages of Drenica and western Kosovo, we see once again the tractors and trailers loaded with refugees, hear the cries of the people who say "We have nothing", "Can we go home", and "Will it ever be safe?" The refugee camps set up in ravines in the hills, where families build tents from branches and plastic, are testament to people's ability to make the best of things. But water seeps in, and it is hard to keep out the cold.

When police (until the recent withdrawal) would stop our cars we told our Albanian interpreters to sit quietly in the back as we chatted in bad Serbian. Local cars are subject to enough harassment to ensure that many Albanians are afraid to use the main roads. They don't visit the hospitals in Pristina but journey instead to clinics in bare rooms in muddy villages, or wait for a foreign medical team to visit.

Life has, for the past few years, been dictated by an undeclared apartheid, in which ethnic Albanians (who make up the huge majority in Kosovo) run parallel systems of education, health care and social services. Schools are divided into Serbian and Albanian institutions, occasionally in the same building. The Yugoslav government funds one side only.

The cities are calm, but the division persists in shops, bars, cafes and hotels: Albanians are loath, for example, to meet for coffee at the Grand Hotel (a very misleading name) in central Pristina, since it is Serb-run. Crossing the line is frowned upon by each community, and rare is the person with friends on both sides - though there are some Romeos and Juliets who meet in secret.

Though foreigners find it almost impossible to distinguish between the two communities in urban areas, locals seem able to identify a stranger's identity almost at first sight, even before he or she starts to speak. In rural areas there are visible signs: grazing piglets equals Serb village, for instance, as do elderly women dressed in black.

Until the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1996 the Albanian community had no force to call its own, since Albanian soldiers and policemen were mostly fired when President Slobodan Milosevic revoked the region's autonomous status in 1989.

The war is so far rooted firmly in the countryside, even if fighting takes place within 20 miles of the capital. It is bizarre to drive out of Pristina and, a few minutes later, encounter an armed and uniformed KLA soldier.

In some areas the two groups even share the roads, with separatist gunmen roaming to within 150 yards or so of police positions. But the KLA has not the strength to hold fixed positions nor to guarantee the safety of people who wish to return to their shattered villages.

As foreigners, we are able to drive around pretty freely now that a ceasefire is in place, though the lessons of Bosnia, where colleagues were killed and injured by mines, means that we exercise great caution when using unfamiliar routes.

The village of Obrinje, where more than 20 members of the same family were killed while hiding in the woods, is only half an hour from Pristina. For many locals, however, Pristina might as well be on the moon, since they are so terrified of the police that they do not dare leave the meagre shelter of their ruined homes.

In the capital, meanwhile, urban Albanians are inured to the constant police checks, the demands for identification papers, the casual insults from policemen and soldiers who often come from outside Kosovo. Some local Serbs - such as the Orthodox nuns at the medieval monastery in Gracanica - are eager to continue living alongside their neighbours. Others fear that the inevitable Albanian takeover - inevitable because the minority community continues to shrink - will bring revenge killings.

The fighting may have stopped for now, but the victims keep mounting. An elderly man weeps soundlessly as he surveys a skull and spine, a pile of blackened ashes, lying in a gully - he believes them to be the remains of his brother. A neighbouring heap of bones is, he thinks, a cousin.

We can do nothing but tell his story, understanding that we will never really know what is happening here. We drive to the next miserable scene, make our notes and then head for the warmth of our hotel.