Then the white UN aid cars pulled up in the apparently deserted town of Glogovac, in the Drenica region that spawned the Albanian uprising against Belgrade.
It was only when these vehicles arrived that the first, few brave souls ventured out, painfully thin and nervous. Within minutes we were surrounded by hordes of women, children and a few old men laughing, crying, even clapping and cheering by the end.
Staffan de Mistura, a UN official, said about 18,500 "internally displaced persons" (IDPs) were living in Glogovac - the biggest single group that had been found since Nato forces arrived in Kosovo. "We are surprised that we found this many, we thought they would be hiding in the bushes still, but they must have heard that Nato is coming," he said.
The crowd hugged us and thanked us (for what?) and led us to the cramped and malodorous rooms they now call home. "I am from Trstenik village, but at this moment no one is there," explained Azemina Kukaj, 25, leading us to the small, two-storey house with six rooms that she has shared for one month with 174 people.
"We don't have anything to eat, we have been hungry," she said as she led us upstairs and showed us a metal stove bearing two pots - one filled with water, and one with yellow chunks of maize. "This is for one day for us, 27 people," Ms Kukaj, a biology student, explained, as her roommates gathered round.
A delegate from the World Food Programme shook her head - "It is not enough" - and asked to see the water source. The small garden is a swamp, the well filled with foul water. This is where the refugees had to wash their clothes and themselves. In a small orchard, with no fruit growing, a second well provided cleaner drinking water.
The foreign troops, however, will not move in for a few days, and meanwhile the Serb military machine is still close by. Perhaps 300 yards up the road, seven tanks, most flying the red, white and blue Serbian flag, sat parked in the sunshine, tucked in behind farm buildings (since their old bases in the area have been reduced to rubble by Nato). "These 48 hours are terribly delicate because as you can see, the Serbs are moving out, Nato is moving in and the people think they have made it," Mr de Mistura said. "There could be mistakes ..."
The surging crowd parted once or twice to let a red Lada Niva without number plates sail by, carrying two Yugoslav soldiers and a camp bed, but it barely dampened their spirits, despite stories of Serbian attacks. Ms Kukaj's father, who had a heart bypass operation two years ago, was arrested two weeks ago. But he was released. "He has had no medicine for a month, just God's help, only God's help," she said, in very good English.
As the women and children crowded around the foreigners, some smiling, others weeping, Ms Kukaj said that about 200 men had been arrested by the Serbs in the past month. "And we don't know now ..."
Downstairs, in a small, dark room, she introduced us to Xhyla Kiqina. The old woman is 82 and unable to walk but she was still feisty. "I was here when the Serbian forces came into this house and maltreated all these young girls and women. I saw with my own eyes, they were more brutal than I have ever seen. They told me to go, but I cannot walk."
Ms Kukaj agreed. "It was terrible. The night before we came here we could not sleep - the whole army, with tanks, rockets, everything. They killed a woman who has two children in the night, and her body was there until three days ago."
Detention and disappearance is not the only risk these people have had to endure. The group said many babies had perished over the past three months for lack of sanitation and a total absence of medical care. And a Unicef official who spoke to a local nurse said there were 50 wounded people in the group, including a baby with a broken leg, whose mother came running out in search of help.
Mr de Mistura radioed Pristina and ordered a food convoy and a medical team, and we set off up the road towards Srbica (Skenderaj in Albanian). There was another striking sight: a column of 150 women, children and old men, marching through a field and heading home to the villages of Cirez and Gradica in the Cicavica mountains. "We have been living in Glogovac, in houses, schools, whatever place we can find shelter," said Lumturije Muja, 17. "And now we are going home."
She and her family and friends were tanned by the sun, faces smudged with dirt but they were smiling. "There is very little food, you can see the children, their condition," she said, gesturing to a small, silent toddler. "We lost a lot of children from starvation, 13 in all."
For the four-hour walk home, the refugees had bundled their few possessions, or put them in wheelbarrows. Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers were close, they said, though we could not find them. Were the refugees worried about mines, or hostile soldiers? "No, the KLA controls the territory and they told us to come back because it is safe," Ms Muja said. "The KLA went back to the village and cleared the roads and the houses. We are very happy because we are going home, it's a great relief."
In the distance, smoke billowed from one of perhaps a dozen houses we saw burning - the last legacy of the Serbian occupation of Drenica. The region had paid a heavy price: villages torched, mosques destroyed, people killed.
But the Yugoslav Army paid a price too, attacked by Nato's bombs. Most regular soldiers (as opposed to the feared Interior Ministry police and the murderous irregulars) seemed almost pleased to see us. One group played volleyball in the sun, waiting for their buses out.
Perhaps the arrival of Nato, whose soldiers will not be deployed in Glogovac for several days, means the end of the nightmare. The Albanians lining the road, throwing roses at our car and waving us on are depending on it. "I think that the terror is finished now," Ms Kukaj said. "I want to believe."Reuse content