'They mutilated her, then shot her'

Kosovo slaughter: 'I am the witness' said my guide, who watched Serbian forces butcher a family in the woods
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AFTERWARDS, YOU remember the little things: the ring on the finger of a dead woman, a baby's jacket, a bridal dress, a child's pink bow ground underfoot, a pile of schoolbooks tossed against a mud bank.

The children of the Rexhep family took their books with them when they fled from the Serb police who came to burn their village. Now they and their mothers have vanished. Neighbours say they have been killed.

I followed their last known journey, two miles on a muddy track straight up the mountain. The hoof prints of their horse were still indented in the soft mud. The body of the horse was easy to find, lying half-way upa ravine, where it had careered over the edge, still pulling its cart. But the mountain concealed still more horrific secrets.

Women's underwear hung from the bushes around a plastic shelter where the family had stopped for the night, believing they were safe. Two bodies lay close by. Others were found in the undergrowth, decapitated. As the sons, brothers, cousins, neighbours searched the scrub oak forest, weeping softly, my guide, a farmer named Sami, spoke the unspeakable: "I am the witness, I am the witness."

He ran away from the village when the Serbs came, stopping in the oak shrubbery to get his breath back, wearing the irregular camouflage of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Then he heard Albanian-speakers coming through the trees, calling out familiar Albanian names: "Hassan, Hajdin ..."

Those speaking in Albanian were wearing police uniforms. But behind them were men in green army uniforms. He said that when refugee families came out of the hiding places, the soldiers stripped off their victims and mutilated them.

"They stripped one woman and cut off her ears, nose and fingers. They cut into her genitals with a knife. She was still moving. After a while they shot her. They got some kind of powder, and poured it on the bodies. Then they sealed them in plastic bags, put them in trucks and took them away." Altogether the Kosovars said they found 18 bodies in and around the village: they believe that the Serbs took away several others.

BBC television pictures and the newspaper photograph of a child killed at Obrinje have served as a powerful driving force this week. The outrage has enabled the British Government, which is the most hawkish on this issue, to move the agenda forwards.

It is like Bosnia on fast- forward. There was no Nato military involvement in Kosovo in March when the Serbs began their campaign, and action did not follow the so-called final warnings issued to President Slobodan Milosevic when he did not withdraw his special police.

As in Bosnia in 1995, the West has needed a spur - one major abuse too far - before the political momentum grows for warplanes to strike. Back then it was the mortar shells that killed 37 people in a flower market in Sarajevo.

For the dead, and the 300,000 to 400,000 people who are now homeless, the possibility of intervention has come too late.

But whether the bombers come or not, those who have taken to the gun for the Kosovar Albanian cause will not easily give it up. Nato countries may find it hard to impose a solution if it falls short of independence for Kosovo.

In the corner of a garden in the village where the Rexhep family once lived, a thoughtful regional commander of the KLA talked of the future, across the body of an old man we had found hidden under blankets.

He said that even after all that had happened, he did not hate the Serbs. But he would not give up the fight.

"If it is written that we should all die, then so be it. But we will never leave this land. We will never surrender."

David Loyn is a BBC World Affairs Correspondent