War In The Balkans - Refugees: Kosovars vow not to return until all Serb police leave

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The Independent Online
THEY WERE still far too traumatised to celebrate. As the word spread slowly that their homeland may soon be at peace, the Kosovo refugees living in tents, on the back of tractor trailers or in the humble homes of Albanians here reacted quietly and sceptically. They said they would go back if Nato or United Nations troops guaranteed their safety but not if Serb troops, police or paramilitary forces remained. Many said they would go back only if every Serb, including civilians, left Kosovo.

And they were under no illusions as to what they expect to find, a Dante's inferno of torched homes, slaughtered or missing relatives, possessions destroyed or stolen, livestock killed, a country without infrastructure where they will need massive world aid to rebuild from scratch.

"We know we are going back to the Sahara. It will make Saddam Hussein's looting of Kuwait look like child's play," said Ibrahim B, a 30-year-old student and refugee from the Kosovo capital, Pristina.

And then there is the question of whether Slobodan Milosevic will keep his word, not something he is noted for and not something the Kosovo refugees expect him to do this time round.

Fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) said the same, saying they doubted whether the Yugoslav President would pull his men out and that they would not lay down their arms in the near future.

"As long as there's one Serb policeman left in Kosovo, we won't put down our guns," said Kadri Kryeziu, the KLA spokesman here.

KLA fighters in Swiss army uniforms, downing Italian beer in a Kukes bar, showed little interest in the peace deal when informed by journalists. "We always had guns. We always will have guns," said one. "After what they've been through, no Kosovar is going to go back without a gun."

Even as the peace agreement was being reached, the rape of Kosovo continued, according to refugees crossing the border yesterday. After slitting Kosovars' throats and torching their homes, they said, the Serb forces were now trying to starve remaining ethnic Albanians to death or into exile.

"The lack of food is the reason given by more and more refugees for leaving," Rupert Colville, spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said. "One new arrival asked us, `When are you going to bring food to Kosovo?' We said, `Very soon.' He said, `Very soon may be too late.'

Artan R, a refugee who crossed into Albania yesterday on a tractor trailer packed with family members from the Kosovo town of Prizren, said: "The men are all in the hills, hiding or fighting with the KLA. There is real starvation over there. We could not even get bread."

The UNHCR is faced with the dilemma of whether to continue its relocation of refugees away from the highland border and down to the lowlands of south-west Albania. Refugees are likely to refuse to budge unless winter forces them to.

"The Serbs burnt many homes but kept the best houses and cars for their own people, especially the paramilitaries," said Arsim B, from Prizren. "I'll go back but I won't live with Serbs.

"There are roadblocks everywhere by police or paramilitaries. They took our passports, identity documents, house papers, drivers' licences, car papers. At the border, they took our number plates. We hear they're handing them out to Serbs. When we go back, how are we going to prove we even exist?

"At every roadblock on the way to the border, they demanded our money. Some of us had stuffed our German mark savings into our shoes, our socks, behind our tractor wheels, everywhere. Our women kept some in their underwear. Eventually we were stopped by a paramilitary in a black mask who pointed his gun at my youngest daughter. `Your money or your children,' he said. We had to hand it all over.

"The more Nato bombed, the more aggressive they would get. While they were bombing, the paramilitaries kicked us in the behind, even the women, along the road, telling us, `It's your fault they're bombing us. Go to Clinton, go to Blair and don't come back.' "

Another refugee, from Mitrovica, said yesterday he and other men had been forced to work in a labour camp, building bunkers for Serb forces against Nato bombing or a Nato ground invasion. "We worked 18 hours a day and were forced to live, 50 of us, in a byre with the cows, using the same place as a toilet," he said. "What are we going back to? Hell. Mitrovica has been 80 per cent destroyed."

Nato's bombing of the Albanian side of the border on Tuesday has turned an area within about a mile of the border into a no-man's land. Refugees have to walk through that zone alone to UNHCR buses several miles from the border. "Our operation up there is pretty much in tatters," a UNHCR official said yesterday.

The Albanian border village of Morini, hit by Nato on Tuesday, has been evacuated. Women and children have also left the next village, Bardhoc, about three miles inside Albania on the road to Kukes.

The sudden appearance of two low-flying fighter planes over the Albanian side on Wednesday terrified residents and the Albanian army alike. Albanian officers believed the planes were Serb MiGs, showing their defiance of Nato. They flew from the direction of Kosovo at a few hundred feet, far lower than we had seen any Nato planes, but we could not tell their type or nationality.

We were driving on an otherwise-deserted stretch of road at least five miles from the border but close to an Albanian tank position when they screamed directly overhead, turned tightly and roared back towards us. We ran from the car and watched from a field as the pilots both did a cheeky 360-degree roll and headed back towards Kosovo.

Whether they were defiant Serbs or cocky Nato pilots was impossible to tell. The planes had come and gone before anyone could capture them on film.