Liberation of Kosovo: Exodus - Gypsies abandoning Kosovo, taking their guilt with them

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IT WAS a medieval exodus. The gypsies of Kosovo fled their homes in their thousands down the narrow mountain road, leading horses that strained at the ropes of great wooden carts piled high with bedding and carpets and children and old women. They left in their thousands, their horses and ponies and wooden trailers weaving between Serbian battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers, a whole people on the move.

A large number of Kosovo's 50,000 gypsies have thrown in their lot with the 100,000-strong Serbian minority, taking Serb names and saints' days, their bands playing Serbian songs and their people speaking Serbian as well as Albanian.

But they also - and it is a sad and tragic tale - appear to have been involved in some of the destruction of Albanian homes; residents of Djakovica say Serb police used gypsy children to light the fires that destroyed the Kosovo Albanian area of the city in mid-May. Albanians in Pristina say that gypsies helped to loot their homes.

But on the mountainside above Raca yesterday, they made a heartbreaking sight, stumbling down the road between the better-off Serb refugees in their tractors and cars, their dark-skinned children wide-eyed with fear, holding the reins of white and brown ponies. Perhaps half the Serbs of Kosovo have now abandoned their homeland. But the gypsies have no homes in Serbia to go to. Yugoslav police prevented many gypsy carts from pressing on into Serbia, although on the motorway to Belgrade a pathetic trail of Serbs continued to drive their tractors up the hard shoulder towards Belgrade.

In an appearance on Serb television this week - the same television service Nato bombed as a "legitimate target" during the war - General Sir Michael Jackson, the KFOR commander, tried to persuade Kosovo's minorities to stay in the province.

But it was a lacklustre performance; General Jackson was obviously exhausted and slumped so low in his chair that his general's epaulettes were hanging over his pockets. When asked about the much-publicised kidnapping of a Serb called Ivan Celic, he admitted he had never heard of him.

Even fewer outsiders have heard of the gypsies of Kosovo. They came from India to the Balkans when it was part of the Byzantine empire and there are records of their presence here in the late 1300s.

By the 19th century, several thousand had settled around Prizren. They were largely Muslim but a small Serb Orthodox minority still exists. During the Second World War, they were the second victims of the Holocaust. Many thousands were murdered by Hitler's Croatian "Ustashi" allies in Yugoslavia and up to a million were shipped to Auschwitz death camp from Hungary and Romania. There is no memorial to their wartime catastrophe.

And amid the revelations of torture and executions coming out of Kosovo, another minority ethnic group associated with the Serbs - however innocent - will not elicit the world's sympathy. The American journalist John Reed - whose story was told in the film Reds - recorded in 1915 how "every (Serb) regiment has two or three gypsies, who march with the troops, playing the Serbian fiddle or the bagpipes... "

Yesterday, the gypsies of Kosovo were accompanying Serb regiments in their retreat from Kosovo, carts beside artillery pieces, ponies beside tanks.