Nato storms into Kosovo

Tragedy and farce give a final twist to what could be the last war of the 20th century
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The Independent Online
WHAT WAS possibly the last war of the 20th century drew to a spectacular, tragic and farcical end in Kosovo yesterday. History will recall that on Saturday 12 June 1999, Nato at last stormed into the Serbian province with 15,000 troops but that the Russians got there first, and that the Serbs of Kosovo fled for their lives from the vengeance of those they had persecuted.

For me, however, it began with a British paratroop captain called Chris Gosling and ended with a three-star Russian general called Igor. In between was that strange combination of fear and normality and human pain that all wars embrace.

Everyone in Kosovo had waited for this day. In Pristina - still under Yugoslav army control - my driver Goran had tanked up our white BMW with enough precious fuel to take us to the British front line east of Urosevac. At dawn we were driving down a long, straight, empty road, past dead animals, burning houses and wrecked cars. There was shattered glass and overturned crates on the road, and a car parked in the centre beside a field of cornflowers, with clothes hanging out of the driver's window. Every village - Albanian and Serbian alike - was a place of sepulchral ruin.

It was some while later, amid the fields and poplar trees and rolling orange-green hills that looked like Wiltshire, when Goran turned to me. "There are men on the road," he said quietly. Ahead were three men squatting on the tarmacadam, rifles pointed at our car. This was KLA country, the guerrillas' favourite ambush location and our car had Belgrade plates. I recall, with that intense fascination which only anxiety can produce, that a donkey was skipping between the gunmen, cantering in front of them, hee-hawing as it galloped past our halted car and looked at us with big, soft eyes.

Then I saw the little poppy-red beret on the head of the middle soldier. And in my best Kentish accent, I said good morning to him. "Good morning," he replied. "Nice day, isn't it?" And thus, in that uniquely bland manner that all dramatic occasions produce, I met Captain Chris Gosling of the Paras, the very first Englishman in the most forward front line of Nato's first advance into Kosovo. Capt Gosling comes from Swindon, his wife from Yorkshire. He was a Bosnia veteran and thought of Kosovo "like most of the lads, that we should have gone in sooner".

He was worried about the car in the middle of the road, the one with the clothes hanging out of the window. Two of his soldiers pulled the crates to the hedgerow with ropes in case they concealed mines. There was a smattering of very distant rifle fire. "There's about 200 KLA behind us and they're being negotiated with now to keep them back," Capt Gosling said. Did he know the Russians had beaten him to Pristina? "We were tasked to go in there last night and take the airport," he said. "But it was cancelled."

Was there a tone of regret at a missed chance to biff the Russians, perhaps? Maybe not. For Capt Gosling was a friendly soul, with a splendidly sun- burnt, weathered face and piercing blue eyes. His mates were infuriated at the preposterous delay which allowed the Russians to reach Pristina while Nato leaders argued about who should enter Kosovo first. "They always do that, don't they?" one of them said. This was while we were plodding back towards Pristina along that unpleasant road, across Serbia's sacred soil at around two miles an hour. After just one hour, Nato was already falling behind schedule.

A Chinook helicopter thrashed over us and put more paratroops on to the road ahead. Maybe, I said, the captain and his colleagues would like to call by to see us at the Grand Hotel in Pristina when they eventually hit town. There was a snort from a private. "Some chance we're going to have of going anywhere called the Grand," he said. But it would be history on a grand scale in which they would be participating.

On an infinitely tragic scale, too. For on the approaches to Pristina, a new army of refugees was gathering, hundreds of Serb villagers from the abandoned hamlets on the road to Urosevac, all sitting atop their family furniture - chairs and beds and sofas and cooking pots and toys and plastic bags of linen - piled on to tractor trailers. The children were mostly asleep, the old

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men bent over and weeping, the other men sitting mute on the tractors, driving away from the white-painted houses I had seen burning. It was they - the fleeing Serbs - who had set them ablaze. They did not want the returning Albanians to have them. So they incinerated the rooms and walls and roofs that had witnessed generations of their births and deaths.

They were running from the fury of those whom their people had murdered and raped and dispossessed. They were not the "ethnic cleansers". The young girls on the tractor trailers and the babies they tried to comfort were innocent souls. And Nato was supposed to be coming to save Serbs as well as Albanians. But Nato was late, the KLA was down the road and these families preferred exile to death.

At one corner, a Pristina Serb was desperately trying to persuade the villagers to stay, at least in the provincial capital. "Stay here - we are going to share everything with you," he shouted at the line of sunken- faced refugees. "You will not go hungry in Pristina. Stay here. Live with us." It was a strange, ferocious town in which they were being invited to stay, whose streets were now home to a variety of armed men and yet whose rituals continued to the end.

In the suburb of Kosovo Polje, I found the local 8.30am train to the town of Djeneral Jankovic, right on the Macedonian border, about to pull out of the station, five red-and-cream carriages hauled by a diesel loco and nothing - absolutely nothing - to suggest that within two hours this train would meander its way right past the last retreating Yugoslav army truck and through Nato's front lines. There were a few old women in the carriages, their journey to Nato's protectorate the price of a train ticket.

Only half a mile away I saw the Russian army, an armoured personnel carrier and three trucks leading a black BMW with dark windows and Russian registration plates at speed towards Pristina military airport. There were already hundreds of Russian troops at the mighty air base, and these additions were greeted with frantic waves by Serbs standing outside their homes. When a Yugoslav military checkpoint stopped the vehicles and a cop shouted that "a Russian general" was in the black BMW, I ran to the rear of the little convoy.

"Good morning, General!" I greeted him. A paunchy man with three stars on his shoulders and with a blue-and-white shirt beneath his Russian battledress stuck a big sweaty hand out of his window. Was he going to stay at the airport? To Nato's fury and humiliation, I might have added. While soldiers and policemen tried to interrupt, I learnt that yes, he would stay, "a long time". Days, weeks or months? "Years," he replied with a broad grin. He would only give his first name - Igor - but he was pleased with himself, dabbing at his perspiration with a thick handkerchief and offering his beefy hand to shake once more.

But what did this mean? If a general was moving into Pristina airport, what chance that another general - Sir Michael Jackson of KFOR, no less, Capt Gosling's commanding officer - would be able to set up his headquarters in the very same building? Was the Russian army humbling Nato? Or both Nato and their own Russian government, made up as it is of corrupt, incompetent buffoons?

As I drove back into Pristina, it occurred to me how much the Russians would like to control the air base, with its massive underground taxiways and nuclear-blast-proof conference rooms. And how easy it would be to open the base to Russian aircraft to bring in thousands more troops, with not just the blessing but the positive encouragement of Belgrade. I remembered what it said on the back of the Russian armoured vehicle leading General Igor's convoy. The word on the back was: "Airborne". By last night the British were in Pristina, too. But they had come the slow way.

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