Refugees of Kosovo return to find ruins

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS OF Kosovo Albanian refugees streamed back to their destroyed homes yesterday as Serbian security forces withdrew to beat the deadline set by Nato.

Nato ambassadors meeting in Brussels last night were expected to announce that the Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, had complied sufficiently with UN demands for the threat of air-strikes to be lifted. The ambassadors were briefed by Nato on intelligence gathered by spy planes operating out of Italy.

Despite demands from Russia for Nato's activation order to be cancelled, Britain and the US were pushing for the threat of air-strikes to be extended. Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, said it was necessary to "keep the planes on the runway".

In the central Kosovo village of Malisevo, abandoned since 28 July, the refugees came as soon as it was daylight. First dozens, then hundreds of men and boys came back to their home town for the first time in three months to assess the damage done by Serbian forces.

Few were returning for good. Most were just inspecting the wreckage. At the family home of Osman Mazreku, the upper storey was charred by fire, the lower storey was littered with bedding, and clothing had been ripped from drawers.

"Everything has been stolen," he said glumly, "but I'm happy to be here because I'm alive, and that's what matters." Osman's father, Ramiz, who insisted on staying when the rest of the family fled, has disappeared. "He said, `I'm old, no one will hurt me'. But I was afraid something like this would happen."

In the local hospital, graffiti in Serbian Cyrillic letters testified to the occupation bySerbian troops who had moved out so quickly that they had left a watery stew, hunks of bread and dirty plates on a table upstairs.

Next door in the local school, teachers crunched across broken glass, recording the loss of a computer and a television. "It's very difficult to come back after a long time and see the place in this condition," said Isuf Mazreku, director of the high school. "It will take at least two months [to restore]. We don't have any money."

In the surrounding villages, a few people began to return home, although most seemed to be scavenging among their possessions for anything that could be salvaged. "We are here just to check the situation - it's not safe to stay here," said Janus Krasniqi, a middle-aged man who was visiting for the first time since he and his family fled to the hills from a neighbouring village. "It's not safe to be here before they retreat completely."

His words were prophetic. A few hours later, we were talking to KLA rebels, armed and uniformed, as they stood around bunkers built in the woods beside the road and abandoned by Serb forces. The crackles on the radio became more and more urgent and, in the distance, we heard the rumble of heavy vehicles moving along the road. The gunmen dropped out of sight as a Serb police convoy rolled past, heading for Malisevo. In the distance, a machine-gun chattered.