Kosovo Peace Deal: At first it appeared idyllic, but it was a land of ghosts

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IT WAS when we emerged from the deep gorge that separates Macedonia from Kosovo that we realised we had arrived in a land of ghosts.

The beautiful little town of Kacanik lies in a perfect bowl in the hills, its large and expensive red-roofed houses scattered among the trees. It looked peaceful and intact - except for the silence. And it was then that we realised that not a single human being could be seen. The hundreds of houses, the smart high school, the cafes, the shops, all were deserted.

When we looked more closely we saw that every window had been smashed and every room had been stripped. There were no curtains, no ornaments, not even any door handles or light fittings. Every item of value in Kacanik had been removed by the almost exclusively middle-class Serbian population and carried away in every vehicle they could beg, borrow or steal. The 20,000 men, women and children who once lived and prospered here are thought to have left three days ago with the departing Serb army. What they could not take they trashed.

It was the first of many strange sights we were to see as we moved steadily north. Empty houses everywhere, silent villages, some destroyed and some not. Each small community held a mystery. Who had lived here? Serbs or Albanians? What had happened to them? The only witnesses seemed to be the packs of emaciated dogs. It was all just endless silence, broken by the roar of passing tanks and the clatter of scores of helicopters sweeping across the valleys. We had no opportunity to stop and examine these mysteries. Nobody in this great column of armour, including writers, photographers and cameramen from across the globe, was allowed to step off the Tarmac.

We know that out there are scores of minefields, sown by Serbs preparing for a battle that never came. There are also an estimated 4,000 tons of unexploded Nato bombs, including cluster bombs, that could be buried in the soil or just lying inside deserted houses. So the searching and the probing, the combing and the digging, will be left to the army of forensic experts and criminal detectives from all over Europe and America who are due to arrive in the weeks and months ahead.

Just occasionally in this empty landscape we would come across groups of men, unarmed but with maps in their hands. They looked tough enough to be KLA, but they simply strolled through the villages, noting things, and greeting the arriving army and media with waves and victory salutes. The trouble that will come from that quarter in the years ahead is not apparent now.

All of us on this roaring, rumbustious and quietly joyous day know that the thugs and murderers are on their way north, still dangerous but seemingly controlled in their actions.

The land is not empty though. Even the silence we were breaking must have seemed good to them: the Albanian Kosovars who have remained in hiding in the forests and mountains

The historic day in the tragic history of this small, backwater province, so long dominated by their powerful neighbour in the north, began brilliantly, even before the sun was up. All through the night thousands of military vehicles, from massive battle tanks to troop carriers, had moved down from their assembly points in the fields right next to the two biggest Albanian refugee camps. Thousands, woken by the roar, had danced and sang in celebration.

Shortly after dawn thousands more joined them, hanging in their hundreds from the fences that have held them captive for months, holding up their babies, and throwing kisses at the passing tanks and their grinning crews on the turrets. The convoys passed by hour after hour. It is a procession that will last, non-stop, for days, if not weeks.

But it didn't all go perfectly, and within a few miles of crossing the border it almost degenerated into farce. Nobody told more than 2,000 journalists and TV crews that the first stage in the movement of a 50,000-strong army had begun and by the time we got three miles into Kacanik Gorge just north of the border there was the grand-daddy of all traffic jams.

Tanks were forced to squeeze through a nose-to-tail convoy of four-wheel drives and cars packed with the media. At the first security holdup, a suspected booby-trap in a tunnel, the entire invasion column - stretching back nearly 30 miles - became a throbbing, squealing, dust-shrouded tangle of military and civilian vehicles.

The intention had been to launch a lightning assault on the length and breadth of Kosovo, beginning with a rapid drive up through the gorge, on to the central plain and into the capital, Pristina. But the engineers and mine clearance crews were not happy with many of the things they found in and around the numerous tunnels and bridges, and by mid afternoon the convoy was far south of its objective. But up until now not a single airman has been killed by enemy action, and the ground forces meant to equal that record.

Suddenly, and almost magically, in mid-afternoon we burst out of the ring of mountains and saw the great round plain that is almost stunning in its beauty: a lush, green, miniature paradise, studded with villages, hamlets, farm houses and cottages, all with the same red roofs. To the west, the great towering mountains of Albania, and to the east flat rolling fields, full of the poppies of summer, but with the hay now beginning to rot through lack of care. It still looked superb.

For those of us who have witnessed the horrors of the past three months, watching those traumatised and brutalised thousands running before something evil beyond belief, it was a moment of exhilaration. At last we had seen this remote and lovely place, and we had had come in the wake of an army of 19 countries who were prepared to defend them.