War In The Balkans: The Exodus - Trapped in Europe's Great Terror

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The Independent Online
THE TALE of two Albanian cities, Pec and Prizren, cleansed with brutal efficiency by the Serbs, reads like the story of the Bosnian war squared. In only a few days, one ancient town has been emptied and destroyed, while in the second, the methods are slightly more restrained but the aims are equally brutal.

Yesterday the tales of horror worsened as columns of fleeing Albanians - more than 15,000 strong - poured out of towns and cities. Survivors recounted how gun-toting Serb forces had terrorised exhausted refugees hiding in the hills.

A refugee named Bardhyl Kabashi said: "The Serbs came to the hill above Celline at midday yesterday shooting in the air and telling everybody to sit face-down, hands on their heads. They shot over their heads, then forced everybody to stand up, raise their hands in the air to make the Serbian sign with three fingers ... and chant `Serbia, Serbia'."

He said he saw one man killed for refusing to chant, while three other men were pulled away and shot from behind. "Children screamed as the shooting went on."

Similarly horrific stories were related by those fleeing the city of Pec. As they entered Albania, they accused Serb paramilitaries of conducting an orgy of burnings and killings.

"There are lots of unburied people in Pec," said Adem Basha. "The Serbs have settled in the best houses of Pec, which is now `ethnically cleansed'. Tell the world!"

The order to leave Pec, whose old city was a charming jumble of small shops and cobbled streets, was sudden and extremely violent.

"I wish I had an hour to set the house on fire myself and destroy everything myself rather than have them do it," said Adnan Beqiri bitterly. He was expelled from the city at gunpoint and became separated from his family in the chaos.

Daut Bojku recalled: "They came into every apartment, banging on the door and shouting, `You have to leave now or you will be shot'."

The Serbs' reaction to the Nato bombing campaign was a little more restrained in the old city of Prizren, once with a population of 60,000 people, at least 85 per cent Albanian.

"They are trying to eliminate everything Albanian," said Luljeta Cegu Sokoli, an architect expelled from her home in the old city, by a group of police reservists. "The police came to our house, they had a list and they gave us two hours to leave. They told us, `With Nato's first attack, your citizenship was revoked'.

"They were very correct with us. I was on the list, with my mother and sister ... They took all our documents, even our health certificates, bank books, even our address book, every possible document."

In Pec, the more brutal expulsions were just as organised. Refugees said that Yugoslav soldiers, accompanied by police and armed Serb civilians, arrived at about 10am.

"By noon we were on trucks," said Valdet Shoshi, an engineer who ran a pizzeria in the Albanian city. "The whole town is `clean' now. They came into town, broke into apartments and took everything they could. They were shooting inside, spraying the walls with bullets ... They even searched our pockets and took all of our money."

It was a bad sign that the Yugoslav Army, usually deployed on more conventional military operations, was being used to expel civilians - a task more commonly left to the brutal special police and their paramilitary allies.

In Pec, Serb citizens did not partake in the horror - "Our neighbours did not protect us, but they did not do anything to help," Mr Shoshi said. "Pec is empty - all Albanians are gone."

In Prizren, the exodus has been on a lesser scale, with only a quarter of the ethnic Albanian population being ordered to leave, according to Cegu Sokoli's estimate.

"In my neighbourhood they didn't order everyone to leave, just specific families," said Mrs Sokoli. "But even those who are not on the list are leaving anyway, because they are afraid."

As she and her husband left their home, they saw Serb irregulars on the rampage, vandalising and looting stores. "They were wearing headbands and most had two big knives, like machetes, and hand grenades hanging from their belts, along with shoulder-fired rockets, shotguns, the usual things they have.

"In the centre, buildings are not burnt, but you do see houses that are gutted by fire. I fear that this is a good chance for people to take revenge, so if there are fights between Serb families and Albanians, they may just go and burn houses down," Mrs Sokoli said.

"During the night they spray bullets at the windows of Albanian houses. One night, they threw a hand grenade into a neighbour's shelter, knowing he had a lot of people staying in his house, but luckily nobody was hurt."

Many of those who remain in Prizren are now frightened to move. "I saw at a funeral that only one car was going, because no one else dared," Mrs Sokoli said, sadly. "We had Albanian friends who wanted to drive us to the border, but they are afraid of becoming targets."

In both cities, the Yugoslav Army has gone to ground in civilian buildings, in an attempt to avoid Nato's firepower.

Meanwhile Serbian forces backed by armour and artillery have launched a three-pronged attack on a valley in central Kosovo where 50,000 ethnic Albanian refugees are believed to be sheltering, according to information from inside Kosovo. "Yugoslav army artillery began shelling the Pagarusa Valley this morning and Serbian security forces were using tanks and armoured personnel carriers to support the attack," one Western diplomat said.

"They are trying to break through from three directions, Malesevo, Suva Reka and Orahovac. We think the Serb goal is two- fold: to destroy units of the KLA and to drive the IDPs (internally displaced persons) into Albania."