Refugees take up arms and vow to fight Serbs

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"IT'S total hell in Decani, but I'm going to go back there. Now I have a weapon, I will use it to fight". The man, a Kosovar aged 28, preferred not to give his name.

He and 11 members of his family had just arrived in Tropoje, a remote border village, after a 24-hour walk across the mountains from Kosovo, dodging Serb patrols and snipers, to reach relative safety in the homes of Albanian cousins. Speaking amongst bartering weapons dealers in the village street, he described a common story of how he settled his family with relatives, then went out and paid a local man pounds 80 for a Kalashnikov, chosen from a selection displayed in the boot of a Mercedes.

Tomorrow, he said, he will return to Decani with two of his brothers. "We have to defend our country".

Tropoje is a tatty village of burned-out, bullet-pocked ruins - the legacy of last year's anti-government uprising. It is ringed by a range of snow- capped mountains, the only border between Albania and Kosovo. At certain vantage points, a glimpse down the mountain path into Kosovo reveals a thick snow haze hanging over the devastated remains of ethnic Albanian villages.

The sound of mortar and automatic weapon fire can be clearly heard.

More than 4,000 refugees, many injured with gunshot wounds, have struggled across these mountains in the past three days, fleeing the latest Serb offensive on the Drenica area of Kosovo.

Aid agencies expect up to 50,000 more refugees over the next few days. The area is one of the poorest in Albania, but local families scraping out a life on pounds 18 a month state subsistence have each taken in 10 to 20 Kosovo refugees.

Others are met by Albanian relatives, and some prefer to hide out on the hillside. Most are too terrified to register with the authorities, saying they are scared that the Serbs will discover their names.

With their families out of immediate danger, the younger men return with newly bought weapons to fight, leaving the women, children and elderly behind. Many of these men say they are not part of the Kosovo Liberation Army - although they acknowledge its existence - but are forming small local militias of their own to defend their villages. On the border near Tropoje, a small band of KLA soldiers can be seen keeping watch.

Albania is not a safe haven. It is a country with a scantily patrolled border that has made little recovery from last year'suprising, when the population armed itself by looting military weapon stores, and the country fell into chaos.

Gun-selling in Tropoje and along the border was a common sight in Albania last summer, and most of those weapons had already found their way into Kosovo and neighbouring Macedonia before the winter of 1997.

For those refugees who venture south, it is a dangerous 13 hours to Tirana, for the route is dictated by bandits. The narrow dirt-track road to the nearest town, Shkoder, is patrolled by armed men hungry for cars and money.

The only other route is a three-hour rusting ferry ride across deep green lakes, but the boat has come under fire from local gangs in recent weeks.

In amongst its swaying cargo of refugees, food aid and stolen cars, even here men exchange grimy notes of lek, the local currency, in return for freshly oiled weapons.