War in the Balkans: Fleeing Pristina - `You've won free trip in exchange for your home'

Antonio Russo, of Italy's Radio Radicale, was the last Western journalist to remain in Pristina. He escaped by disguising himself as an ethnic Albanian refugee
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The Independent Online
WEDNESDAY MORNING and I'm still in Pristina. It's just after 8am and from the window I can hear pistol shots. They have started the round- ups.

I'm scared. They're drawing closer.

I decide to flee. I leave the room where I have spent the past 15 days. I have no news of the friend who put me up, whether he has been captured or not.

I take refuge in various homes but the Serbs continue house-to-house searches. It's not just the military; there are the special police, the paramilitary squads, Arkan's men. They are easily identifiable, they wear blue military rig and a black wool hat. They are cruel, and seem to enjoy terrifying these poor people who no longer have anything, not even an identity. There are also gypsies: looting and pillaging. They're brutal and arrogant. I have seen them sacking shops and torching the houses of ethnic Albanians.

The gunfire continues. I am surrounded. I realise the only way to escape Pristina is to join the crowd that the Serbs are pushing towards the station. It's a deportation. We hope the destination will be Skopje.

My clothes are similar to those of the fleeing Kosovars, as are my features. I take refuge amid these hundreds of men, women and children who have run out of tears. We share one hope; that the soldiers put us on to a train and take us across the border.

During this sad procession, I meet the Rugova family. They are no relation to Ibrahim, the moderate political leader - I know he is alive, but there has been no news of his two sons for days. They know that by helping me they are risking their lives. But they do it anyway and I am grateful. I confess my identity and explain that I stayed behind in Pristina to recount what was happening. They understand that I am not an irresponsible hack looking for a scoop.

This last round-up has turned Pristina into a ghost town. Thousands of people are scrambling down the hills. They have nothing but the odd blanket and pitiful bits and pieces in plastic bags. There are lots of children. Finally we arrive in the piazza near the station. There is hardly any food; what there is goes to the elderly and the young. Water is rationed. We remain there, huddled together, with the soldiers watching. Some taunt us. "You have won a free train trip in exchange for your homes," they say. No one reacts. In recent days, an elderly couple were killed at Velania - the neighbourhood where Ibrahim Rugova lived. They slaughtered them because they did not want to leave their house. At Mantnica three people were killed. The body of one was put in the boot of a car. The Serb tank then dragged the car along and smashed it against the wall.

I know that there has been a massacre at Pec and some 200 people killed. The news comes from local sources that I trust. They say the Serbs burn the bodies so as not to leave any trace. And in a country without any birth and death registers, any future check to determine the number of dead will be impossible.

It's getting dark and I realise we will be spending the night here. Shortly after 9pm someone approaches, shouting: "Have you got any medicine? There are four women who have given birth." The women, and their newborn, are loaded on to a trunk. No one can tell us where they are being taken. The night seems never- ending. We try to comfort one another. Some despair as they think of the violence they've suffered, the houses destroyed. What I see is a people who no longer have a country.

At 6am a train arrives. We don't know what our destination is - we hope they take us to Skopje - but we all rush towards the 21 carriages. Its a free-for-all, there's not room for everyone. I get on board. We are jammed in like sardines but there is a great sense of solidarity. I realise that other similar trains have left from here; the journeys into exile have a fixed rhythm. They tell us that two more will arrive tomorrow.

After two hours, finally, we are moving. From the windows I can't see the position of the Serb military. The road is marked by burning houses and columns of refugees walking towards the border. There are thousands of them. Behind me is Pristina, the city where I have spent the past six months. The military and the militia have managed to purge almost all the ethnic Albanian Kosovars.

Unfortunately the bombardaments have been ineffective. The bombs have hit useless targets. The Serbs had massed arms and tanks in the courtyard of the hospital and beneath the stadium - two places full of people who double as human shields. No one will drop a bomb on the hospital. One consolation: the bombs haven't caused civilian casualties.

After a couple of house we are at the border with Macedonia "The nightmare is over," I think. I know my colleagues of Radio Radicale will be worried. I imagine that even the Italian embassy in Belgrade is concerned. In the past seven days, from when the other Western journalists left, never has so much time passed without me getting in touch.

"The frontier is closed," someone tells us. The train stops in front of a huge factory. A Serb soldier issues the orders. "Men only off the train." We are just a few metres from Macedonia, we know that there are journalists there. They surely wouldn't be mad enough to kill us all?

We pretend not to understand. We ask the women to get off. The Serbs get angry and make them get back on board. We don't know what would have been our fate if we had climbed down.

A few minutes pass, it seems interminable. "Everyone off," they order. This time we obey. They tell us to get in line. We cross the border on foot. I walk for a couple of hundred metres. Then I see an Italian photographer from the ANSA news agency. I ask for help. I have nothing, just my passport. He accompanies me to Skopje. Finally I light a cigarette.