Shameful end of Serb dream

HISTORY MAY one day record that Serbian Kosovo ended yesterday. Not in glory but in humiliation and - with the finding of yet more slaughtered Albanians - in disgrace. Yet once more I watched its soldiers depart like a victorious army, waving their three-fingered Serbian victory signs, flaunting the Serbian flag before the Albanians they had persecuted and shouting from the back of their trucks, over and over again: "We shall return."

Across the great plain north of Pristina, we watched the shadow of their passing, the valleys of smoke that rose from hundreds of homes torched by the retreating army. Where Serb militiamen had stayed - almost always in Albanian houses - there were fires. Towards the town of Obilic at dusk, I saw a curtain of brown smoke rising 2,000ft into the pale sky. At Podujevo, the Yugoslav army forbad the Household Cavalry to enter the ruined Albanian town before its departure. I can imagine why.

On the road north at Lebane, more than 250 Yugoslav T-72 tanks thrashed up the highway, ripping up the road surface with their tracks, alongside at least 5,000 troops on trucks, bus-loads of reservists and armoured personnel carriers. Out of Pristina wound a long column of those most hated of all the world's policemen - the Serb Interior Ministry Police, the MUP - in their blue and purple uniforms and their blue and white Fiat cars, such harmless looking vehicles for such harmful men. One group sought an escort from a British Parachute Regiment officer; the request was politely declined.

And as the Yugoslav legions completed the first stage of their withdrawal under the terms of the agreement with Nato, there was the same extraordinary evidence that Nato had done little, if any, real damage to this most bombed of post-war European armies. A few of the T-72s were towed, but none bore the marks of shrapnel damage. Tito's secret nuclear-proof bunkers seem to have preserved all this armour intact from Nato's wrath.

"We are a professional army," a Yugoslav colonel announced to me over a beer as his men packed their haversacks for home.

It is true that many of the Yugoslav units drove out of Kosovo in style - their vehicles newly washed, their hair cut to regimental length, their uniforms smart, their joyful waving at the Serbs who gathered disconsolately to watch them genuine expressions of a commonly held view within the army that if they did not win, at least they did not lose. They were going home after a political agreement rather than a military defeat.

But among their number, on trucks and tractors and in old buses were the men who may have been responsible for the butchery at Velika Krusa and other Albanian villages. A group of them passed me on the Pristina airport road yesterday morning. They were sitting on the back of an open truck, some wearing stockings over their faces, others with outsize reflecting sunglasses, unkempt, long hair flowing, terrible chest-length beards moving across their faces, many of them swigging from brandy bottles.

These were the bad guys, the "cleansers", moving in and out of the Yugoslav withdrawal, allowed to drive north of the Kosovo provincial frontier to freedom under the terms of what is laughingly called the "military-technical agreement". Nato watched, of course, and noted, and did nothing. "Fuck you, journalists," one gentleman shouted at us from another lorry.

I found others travelling north through Podujevo, boots hanging over the edge of their truck, beer cans in hand, bandanas and sunglasses wrapped round their faces, knives in their belts, under the unsmiling eyes of the Household Cavalry.

And then there were, yet again, the civilians; this latest generation of Serbia's own "ethnically cleansed" included hundreds who had already been driven from the Krajina by Croatia's American-supported "Operation Storm". Perhaps 20,000 Kosovo Serbs have already left and more are sure to follow in their pathetic tractor trailers and old Yugo cars. Serb history will portray them as victims of foreign plots and of Albania's insatiable desire to expand into Serbia's heartland.

From Prizren, they drove in terror after the Kosovo Liberation Army surrounded the town. From Pristina, they fled when the first KLA guerrillas appeared in the streets yesterday, without rifles but in black shirts and red and black armbands with the words "Guerilja BIA" stamped in black on a red background. The KLA will not reveal what BIA stands for - in fact they are the first-name initials of three KLA "martyrs" of the late Eighties: Bahri Fazliu, Ilir Konyshevci and Agron Krasniqi. The unarmed fighters wandered the streets of the Albanian suburb of Vranjevac and stood guard outside a house near the Park Hotel where I found them chatting to a Parachute Regiment sergeant.

A few hundred metres away, gangs of Albanians had just driven a dozen Serb families from their homes, the occupants forced to leave in just a few minutes with their washing machines and bedding piled on trailers. When I returned to my car, I found another sign of the times pinned under a windscreen wiper. Beneath a snapshot of a middle-aged Serb man wearing a tie were written the following words: "Ivan Celic, born on [sic] 1959, mechanic engineer, from Pristina, Missing since June 14th, around 2pm from the Pristina suburb of Suncani Breg [Sunny Hill]. He was driving black VW Golf ... wearing blue shirt and jeans ... brown hair, blue eyes. He has four children. Father and husband and he was dealing purely with civilian job ..."

Two miles down the road to Skopje, soldiers from 5 Regiment Royal Artillery had surrounded 50 Yugoslav soldiers who were preparing to leave six houses in a largely Albanian village. They were not going to allow the Serbs to burn the houses as they departed.

I eventually talked my way into the Yugoslav position where I shared a beer in a commandeered motel with Colonel Slobodan from Novi Sad, a decent, thoughtful man who conceded that the war should never have been fought. "It would have been better if they had made this agreement before the war," he said. "You have to ask the politicians in Belgrade why they didn't."

A British military policeman turned up to check that the Yugoslavs planned to leave by 6am today. When he left, Colonel Slobodan said: "I promise you there will be no burning. There will be no burning here."

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