Freedom flickering in a tiny corner of Kosovo

The war of independence against the Serbs is being fought by guerrillas of the most innocent kind. By Robert Fisk in Malisevo
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The Independent Online
WHEN THE young officer of the Kosovo Liberation Army walked smartly up to our car in his blue flak jacket, carefully pressed camouflage fatigues and green beret with the insignia of the double-headed black eagle of Albania stitched to his sleeve, I could never have imagined what he would say to us.

On either side of the road, newly dug slit trenches meandered through the orchards, their ramparts piled high with white sacks of sand. The young man smiled at us. "Tell your people we are dreaming of living like the people of Europe," he said.

Just up the road behind the KLA soldier with the heavy machine-gun lying in the undergrowth, an old cart-horse strained before a wagon-load of hay, his ancient driver, with an old Albanian white cap on his head, cracking a whip over the animal. Some of the village houses boasted illustrations of bears and horses carved on to their wooden facades. It could have been the Balkans of the 19th century were it not for the gleaming new Kalashnikovs in the hands of the KLA men.

Malisevo lies in the low hills south west of Pristina, "liberated" according to the guerrillas lounging beside the grocery store opposite the market. But no one ventures outside the ethnic Albanian checkpoints and a local taxi man spoke frankly to me about the nature of his freedom. "I can only drive around in Malisevo and the neighbouring villages," he told me. "If I go outside, the Serb police will stop me and torture or kill me." He patted the steering wheel of his decrepit Mercedes. "So I'm staying here." If Malisevo is free, it also seems to be a prison.

Not, of course, for the KLA men in their neat uniforms and red and gold badges with UCK - the Albanian acronym for Ushtria Clirimtare E Kosoves (Kosovo Liberation Army) - stitched on to shoulder patches. In the mud track beside Malisevo market, a group of village boys were being lined up for inspection in their torn shirts and grubby shoes, potential recruits for the KLA. Another young man - weeping, his head drooping to one side, was being led past them by a guerrilla, accused of some crime we never discovered. He was freed later, still crying.

In a two-storey building, KLA men were brewing tea and checking their weapons. A female KLA member in black combat trousers and black blouse with a black beret on her head was operating a computer in an upper room, rifle on the desk beside her. This was no performance for foreign journalists; the men and women of Malisevo had no idea we were coming to their village. The floors of the house were covered in newspapers and plastic sheeting - KLA men walked around their offices in their socks. In a corner room, I spotted a satellite telephone; a dish was tied to a wooden balcony. No one would talk politics but the word "Nato" moved through their conversations like a punctuation mark.

Nor was it difficult to see why. Within hours Nato aircraft would be in the skies along the border of Kosovo, threatening to bomb the Serb security forces. Had not the Americans and the Europeans - even the Russians - spoken out a day earlier against the "massacre" of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo? Would Slobodan Milosevic dare to attack the KLA in the hills west of Pristina when so much fire power was hurtling around the skies of Albania and Macedonia? This was clearly the logic which brought smiles - even laughter - to the faces of the self- confident men in those over-bright, over-smart uniforms.

The young man at the checkpoint east of Malisevo had equally transparent political views. "We are fighting for our families," he told us. "The Serbs forced us to do this - we are here to save our children and our homes." Just like that. And I wondered how many ethnic Albanians during the Second World War, supported first by Fascist Italy and then by Nazi Germany, had said the same in the villages around this Kosovo farmland. Was this an unfair suspicion? Truly, these men were not right-wing. Indeed, their revolution - if that is what it is - is of the most innocent, naive kind. But innocence does not last long in guerrilla warfare.

They say that the KLA men who board the Pristina-Pec train - it hasn't run for five days now - are polite in checking passengers' identity, speaking in flawless Serbo-Croat to the Serbs still brave enough to travel by rail across Kosovo, handing back their Serb passports with impeccable manners.

But a few more ruined villages like Decani, and the good manners are going to end - like Serbian patience with Malisevo and its neighbouring villages when Mr Milosevic believes the attention of Nato has drifted elsewhere.

Guns are everywhere, Kalashnikovs and German sub-machine guns and Russian pistols, many of them - I suspect - originating from those looted Albanian armouries last year. The uniforms, some of them, might be German in origin. The sandbags appear to be made from rice packaging. A battered car swept through the Malisevo square, a massive red and black banner painted with the two-headed eagle snapping from the front passenger window. "I hope that Nato is going to help us, that it is doing all this to help us Albanians achieve our independence," the owner of a cassette shop tells us with a naivety equal to the age. "We have suffered very much and we deserve help. We saw how late Nato was in acting in Bosnia and we hope they have learnt a lesson."

Alas, the shopkeeper had not heard the latest anonymous US State Department spokesman, the latest Western suggestion that Nato aircraft would never bomb the Serbs unless provoked. Nor are these villagers going to understand why the West still favours a unitary Serbia with Kosovo remaining part of the Yugoslav Federation.

South of the town, 15 miles down a winding country road, the KLA front line veins through the hills, hundreds of yards of deep trenches and fresh earth revetments and young men in dugouts, watching the distant blue-painted armour of the Serb police down in the valleys of the Metohija plain.

In the centre of Malisevo, I noticed a very old man squatting on the roadway between two cars, watching almost sightlessly the young guerrillas moving through the square, his stick on the road beside him, brown worry beads in his right hand.

He was 80, almost deaf, unshaven, the skin stretched tightly over his face. "Have you ever seen anything like this before in your life?" we bawled into his left ear. And the man looked up at us with pale blue eyes. "I've been in many wars before," he said. "I've seen the Italians and the Germans. But I've never seen this before. I will see our independence in my lifetime. Kosovo is already a republic."

Do illusions foster dreams? Or is it the other way round? In Malisevo, you would think the war was over.

Drive back to Pristina through the Serb police checkpoints with their tracked armoured vehicles and guns, past the Yugoslav army patrols humming down the main road to Prizren, and you realise that Malisevo could yet become a village of tears.