Kosovo's war of ghosts and whispers

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The Independent Online
IN KOSOVO's Drenica region, you are surrounded by the Chinese whispers of a war zone. A few miles down the road (you are constantly warned) there is shooting, snipers; it is impossible to move. The reality - once you have passed the Serb checkpoints, where armed men in bullet- proof vests scrutinise every document, is less dramatic, though just as sinister.

Those inside the ring of steel say there has been little shooting in recent days. But they live a life of barren misery. In the past few weeks, 80 Albanian men, women and children have been killed by Serb forces in "anti-terrorist operations". Some villages have been destroyed and others abandoned, for fear of suffering a similar fate.

After passing the final checkpoint, you drive through a ghostly landscape of locked and shuttered houses. Occasionally, you pass a small group of men who stand silently watching the road. Invariably, they deny they are members of the seemingly invisible Kosovo Liberation Army. They are merely "protecting the houses".

There is fear on both sides. The Serbian forces are wary of roaming here. Albanians, too, dare not move, for fear of what the Serb forces might do. Foreign journalists and aid workers are the only people who travel through this dead zone.

Just west of the deserted village of Lausha, a bumpy track runs down along a stream, past a frozen waterfall, to the hamlet of Tushille. Here, hundreds of refugees are gathered. In the schoolroom, they wait listlessly. Other than bread and water, there is nothing to eat. There was a visit this week from Medecins sans Frontieres, bringing medicines. But food supplies do not get through.

"We fled our village when the police started shooting. For two days, we slept in the mountains," says Mihane, 41, cradling her young daughter."My brother and sister have been killed. My uncle was killed. Now I'm not afraid of war. Nothing can be worse than what they [the Serbs] have already done."

The five-country contact group - Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - meets today to decide what to do about Serbia's brutal crackdown, but President Slobodan Milosevic has rarely been bothered about international criticism before.

In one respect, the Albanians in Tushille seem crushed. But it would be absurd to suppose Serbia's tough policy will spell an end to the Albanians' struggle for Kosovo's independence. Drenica is seeing the radicalism of despair. "There is no KLA," claims one woman in Tushille. "We're all for the KLA," says another. A third woman declares: "I want the peaceful way. But we must protect our homes."

n Decani (AP) - One policeman was killed and several were seriously wounded yesterday at Rzic, near Decani in Kosovo yesterday, the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug said.