Liberation of Kosovo: The battered, twisted and smoking ruins of a land raped and abused

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The Independent Online
FROM A thousand feet up, we saw them dancing in the ruins. There were around 30 of them and they probably belonged to one extended family. The old ones, the strong young men and their wives, the children and the infants. Somehow they had stayed together and survived the months of terror, hiding in the hills and watching Serb marauders burning and looting in the night across the great Kosovo plain, hoping against hope that it not be their farm.

Yesterday this family of Kosovo Albanians finally returned and found their walled farm commune, 15 miles south of Pristina, a burnt-out ruin with only the stumps of the foundations showing. But still they danced for us. As the RAF Puma helicopter roared over their heads the men and women linked arms and spun like mad things, the children raised their arms in the victory sign, and the old ones just grinned like lottery winners.

Just for today, all of the carnage and hatred didn't seem to matter. Because the words in their mouths and their hearts are the sweetest ones in every language in the world: "We're home."

All across this suffering and beautiful little land, hidden away in a perfect circle of mountains, those same words were being repeated by the returning thousands. The great homecoming has started. And neither minefields, nor Serb thugs, nor the rumbling convoys of tanks from a dozen armies passing through each other in a mad kind of Texas line-dancing will stop them.

We lifted off from Pristina in the late afternoon. And instantly the great seething, pulsating, chaotic panorama of the Kosovo liberation was laid out beneath our eyes through the helicopter door.

In the suburbs, entire neighbourhoods were swathed in thick smoke from dozens of fires as Kosovo Serbs, knowing only too well what is coming to them, torched their own homes. We could see them, like frenzied ants, running to their cars and trailers, loaded with everything they possess. Then we watched as they made their way through the back streets, jeered at by Albanians, standing by their homes which were trashed and ruined over the past three months, and heading for the main road north.

There, they dived like chicks seeking safety under a mother hen's backside between the T-55 tanks of the Yugoslav Army, which had been moving all day in great roaring and smoking columns on the 160-mile road to Belgrade. Behind them, we could see the little that remained of their barracks and storage buildings, flattened by weeks of Nato air attacks.

From the air over Pristina it is easy to the see the various different kinds of violence that have been inflicted on this neat city of red roofs.

Great swaths of devastation - shattered flats and homes, large public buildings, shopping markets, schools and churches, blasted by mortars and tank shell fire or simply torched during the initial assault by the Serbs in March - tell you this is where the Albanians once lived, worked and conducted their affairs. Massive craters and twisted gasholders and flattened military complexes show where Nato had struck. And freshly burnt, or still burning homes were either the work of Serbs fleeing of attacks by vengeful Albanians.

Swooping over the city centre, we saw the great media fast-reaction division, with their big satellite dishes - now camped out at the Grand Hotel, once owned by the Serb warlord Arkan - swigging Cokes on the big terrace (the sale of alcohol as been banned by Nato decree) and pointing out the fires, and listening to the occasional crackle of gunfire. They were brave because already that morning two Albanians had been hit in the head in "drive- by" shootings by Serbian irregulars.

Down at one of the few remaining petrol stations, scores of beat-up Ladas and Yugos - the favoured battle bus of the freebooters and gangsters who have robbed Kosovo of millions of pounds of goods - filled their tanks and also joined the great tank convoy. Some of them still carried their Kalashnikovs in the footwells. All of them - military and freelancers - had until midnight to get out. After that, under the rules of engagement, they could be shot if they did not disarm.

But some of these ugly, hard-eyed men still had plans to leave their marks. That morning I had seen three of them, their Lada loaded with bottles of expensive booze and piles of cigarette cartons, pointing out to each other a group of pretty young Albanian girls walking along a back street. With their wheels screeching, they roared off. I wondered how many had died or been abused at their hands over those days when they were lords of all they surveyed.

Clattering south from the city, we saw the first wave of refugees, coming north from the camps in Macedonia and east from Albania, grinning and waving up at us. At the infamous Blace border crossing, and up at the vast camps, they were already beginning to scream at the Macedonian police and army to let them go. Thousands had already gone over the wire, already with tragic results. Two members of one family who sneaked over the border had died in a mine blast somewhere in the hills.

We saw village after village, hamlet after hamlet, and again it was easy to separate the Serb from the Albanian. The Serb houses still had roofs, Albanian ones did not. But now it was the Serb houses that were empty, while out in the fields and the yards it was excited homecoming Albanian children who were playing and Albanian men seeking out any of their animals that might have survived, closely examining the the ruins of their homes like people who planned to start rebuilding.

We rose slightly and began to make out the dozens of roads that criss- cross the vast green patchwork of one of the most fertile plains in the Balkans.

On almost all of them the vast military snakes were moving. Tanks, artillery, transporters, lorries, kicked up the dust, going east, west, north and south as far as the eye could see, the armies of a dozen nations performing a kind of mad Gay Gordons-style dance, passing through each other, back and forth, trying to turn chaos into order.

We had a quick swoop over Pristina airport, heavily bomb- damaged, to check out the rather amusing little pantomime still going on there. A handful of Russian airborne troops, now desperately short of food and water, occupy the main buildings and runways, and out on the perimeter we could see Nato tanks waiting to see if they will finally play ball and give the place back to General Mike Jackson. This rather polite siege could turn out to be a long-running show.

As we finally flew low back to the city I saw one last heartening sight. A lone Yugoslav soldier, a small anti-aircraft missile case in his hand, walked through the ruins of what had once been the giant barracks and headquarters complex of the Yugoslav forces - the most feared place in Kosovo. Disconsolately, he kicked a stone, looked up at us and gave us the finger. We returned the gesture in spades.