Kosovo is not a great place to play the role of Good Samaritan but we did our best. It was Nartila's story of persecution that The Independent published last Friday. We told every journalist we could find in the restaurant of the Grand Hotel. I found a group of K-For troops, just arrived in Pristina, and asked for a British officer. The moment I saw one of the men scurrying away to another vehicle, I knew I had found my man. He couldn't help, he said - without giving me time to tell of Nartila's phone call. When I persisted, he said he didn't know where Nato's liaison officers were but he took my mobile phone number and promised that someone would call back. Of course, no one did.
Some of the television crews were Serbs and understandably declined to enter an Albanian area. Several Western reporters thought, as one of them put it, that "the story can wait till tomorrow", which was not a sentiment I planned to pass on to Nartila. I had no right to endanger the lives of others because of that one telephone call. But two men and a woman were prepared to take their chances for Nartila's family.
The bravest was a Serb, our driver Goran. He said he would take us into these dark streets - among the Albanians who were his potential enemies - and two other reporters turned up at once: a journalist for Swedish television and a CNN television crew.
When we reached Vranjevac, a Serb militia vehicle was standing at the road junction, two faces staring at us through the rain-streaked window. It did not follow us into the narrow, rubbish-covered streets but we heard the shooting. Goran had been here before with us, but only to one of Nartila's friends. So we stopped amid the half-ruined hovels. This was an abandoned city, a place already pillaged by the Serb gunmen of Kosovo. Then we saw a movement behind an iron gate.
"Hello - I'm English," I called softly. It was not a country whose name I had said very loudly in Serbia these past two months. Then the gate slowly opened and an old woman peered out and said something in Albanian. Nartila was not there, and Goran spoke no Albanian. But as we stood beside our car in that grim street, the shooting still audible in the distance, other iron gates - the doors of burned-out houses - began to open.
A girl came beside our car and talked to us in Albanian. Again, we could not understand. Goran sat in the car, loyal as ever, not for a moment asking to leave.
Then three children appeared. Nartila, we said. Where is Nartila's home? And the old lady with the scarf ran down the cobbled street and beckoned to us to follow. She banged on a black door and an old, stooped man in a black beret grabbed me and pulled me into the interior courtyard. He was shaking with fear. More children appeared from a shed, then a young man and a girl and an old woman emerged, rain-soaked in the cold, from beneath the branches of a tree.
I never want to hear another comparison of Kosovo with the Second World War. But I've seen pictures of the Polish ghettoes and I thought, briefly, of Anne Frank in her garret. These people were living in filth.
The young woman ran up to us. "The gunmen have just gone but they said they would burn us all tomorrow," she said in hesitant English. "They fired at our houses and in the air. They have just left."
The family all began talking, their voices rose in a babble; high, frightened, screeching. And all the while, more figures emerged from the grass and trees of the courtyard and from a hole in the ground that might have been a basement or a manhole cover. It was black and wet and these people were in terror. What could I say?
I told them to keep quiet, to stop talking, to return to their hiding- places. When we tried to leave, the old man in the black beret - Nartila's father - tried to pull me back into the house again, tugging desperately at my shirt sleeve. The girl tried to pull at the wrist of my wife Lara, who works for The Irish Times and for whom Nartila also now works. Please stay here, please be quiet, I kept saying. But there were more Albanians in the darkened street outside, hearing our English and believing that our appearance as foreigners heralded their salvation.
The huts and smashed hovels were now disgorging an entire population in hiding. "Where is Nato?" one woman cried. Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, I kept muttering. If you raise your voice, the Serbs will come back.
When I climbed back into the car, Goran was sitting there waiting for instructions. I thanked him for his courage. "Nema problema," he said softly. No problem. We backed down the street, the Albanian ghosts retreating into their wrecked homes, and there was a silent closing of gates.
A small, dark story, then, from a land of persecution. But it deserves its glorious, sad, bitter finale which came within hours - a wide-screen, cinemascope epic as the Irish Guards drove their Warrior armoured vehicles up the road to Vranjevac yesterday morning and brought the dead Albanian town back to life.
Just a few girls came on to the street at first, then their parents, then young men - a lot of young men - and then every man, woman and child, Nartila's family among them. And they smothered the young British soldiers in flowers, heaped their armoured vehicles with roses and carnations and cried at their own resurrection.
"Nato-Nato-Nato," they screamed, and someone wrote "Tony Bler" on the highway in black paint. And then they began shrieking "UCK-UCK-UCK", the Albanian patronymic for the Kosovo Liberation Army whom Nato is supposed to disarm.
Among the soldiers and militiamen streaming between the Albanian crowds - flagrantly provoking the dispossessed with three-fingered Serb victory signs - were the small cars of families who had lost all, women crammed in the back, covering their faces, the men with eyes fixed on the road, trying to ignore the cries of "UCK-UCK".
The Second World War again. The fleeing Serb families were the 1945 dispossessed of eastern Prussia and the Sudetenland, paying the price for the expansion of the Reich, unworthy of anyone's sympathy. There were no roses for them, just the jeers and hatred of a crowd that moved like lightning between jubilation and fury. An Albanian threw a brick at a car and was pounced on by a British soldier. "Don't do that!" the Guardsman shouted. The man opened his hands in innocence.
Could one blame them? A young Albanian from Podujevo - "cleansed" by Serb forces in April - said that Serb policemen were now living in his home; he had been hiding in the Vranjevac ghost town for weeks. "We feel at last that we are protected," he said, staring at the British army's armour. "We are close to the end, I think." Could any Serbs stay, I asked? "Every Serb has bloody hands," the man said. "They can't stay here because they know what they have done."
The Serbs in central Pristina watched the Nato armour with cold distrust. The Russians were still at the airport but there were no more Moscow troops in the streets, no more demonstrations of pan-Slavic unity. Right next to me, a Serb girl offered a toffee to a Guardsman. But I saw a tall young man kick a parked Warrior and another spit at a British soldier on the Corso.
The Serbs talk repeatedly of George Robertson's demand that they flee. What the Secretary of State for Defence said - in one of those fatuous sound-bites that helped to carry this war through - was "Serbs out, Nato in, refugees back."
What he meant, of course, was Serb soldiers and paramilitaries out, but that wouldn't have fitted into the mindlessness of a sound-bite. So "Serbs out" it was and, translated accurately into Serbian - and without explanation - it was said here that a British minister wanted the Serbs to run away.
And yesterday, that's what they were doing. Up the hill from Vranjevac, there was heavy shooting; a policeman and two soldiers killed. There were fearful reports from Prizren where the Serbian Archbishop was reported to have broadcast over a ham radio that one of his priests had been killed and his monastery surrounded.
Not much to compare with the suffering of the Kosovo Albanians. Not much to distract from the televised scenes of jubilation and salvation. Goran, as usual, waited among the Albanians, beside our car. And when we decided to leave, he drove up the street. Our car has Belgrade plates and the Albanians screamed at Goran and threw a pebble at the car. It missed him but hit my wife on the lip
Up the hill ahead, there was shooting, and we turned round, Goran driving right back through the crowds again, gingerly steering our car among them lest he hurt the people who hated him. And so it was, I suppose, that Pristina achieved its "liberation".Reuse content