War in the Balkans: Truth is dying in the ruins of silent capital

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The Independent Online
IF THERE are lies, damned lies and statistics, the Kosovo war has now moved into damned lies. Just a week ago, we had the Serbs claiming that the Albanians - far from being "ethnically cleansed" - were setting fire to their own homes. Now we have Nato claiming that the Serbs of Pristina - far from being bombed by Nato - were blowing up their own homes. In the centre of this empty, silent city, you might be forgiven for thinking that the world had gone mad.

The Serbs are spending much of their time insisting that the tens of thousands of Albanians who have palpably disappeared from the capital of Kosovo are merely hiding from Nato bombs. In which case, why is every house empty, every Albanian street deserted, every Albanian shop smashed and plundered and daubed with Serb graffiti?

Why did the fearful group of non-Serb refugees we saw at the disused railway tracks shamble in exhaustion and fear through the city, a mass of filthy clothes and old sacks and haggard faces, a live re-enactment of Schindler's List? Why did lights still burn in broken homes and front doors bang in the wind and why were the contents of the Albanian chemist's shop strewn over the pavement on the edge of town?

Then we have Nato's brutal air raid on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. It killed at least 10 civilians, it destroyed the post office, the largest bank in town and a whole row of civilian homes. One bomb crater had totally erased a single-storey house. At least two craters were 30 feet deep and the bomb that hit the post office had brought part of the building crashing to the ground. When I talked to Serbs who live in the centre of Pristina - alone and in many cases almost too angry to speak to a citizen of a Nato country - they all gave detailed descriptions of the night of air raids.

When Valentina Jovanovic came to the door of her house in the capital, she was still in a state of shock, drawing heavily on a cigarette, her fingers shaking, as frightened of her own voice as she was angry to find an Englishman outside her home. "They bombed first at 11 o'clock. Then they came back at 1 o'clock. Then again at three this morning. They bombed and bombed and bombed. Why?"

A few hours later, Air Commodore David Wilby told a Nato briefing that in Pristina "Nato has certainly not caused the widespread and random damage, which we believe has been caused by Serb forces".

But while it is true that - at the start of its air bombardment - Nato attacked exclusively military targets, the American-European alliance is now hitting civilians. And I believe that Valentina Jovanovic was telling me the truth in Pristina. I do not believe Air Commodore Wilby was telling us the truth in Brussels.

Only aerial bombing could have pulverised the centre of the city in so shocking a way. Only missiles or air-fired ordnance could have gouged such craters into the ruins. No Serb - however devious - could have created this disgraceful scene in just a few hours, priming the entire Serb population of the area to tell every journalist an identical story.

Either Nato made a terrible mistake in Pristina or, egged on perhaps by its Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrilla allies, it committed a terrible deed. No wonder the Serbs - who brought journalists to Kosovo to see the ruins but allowed them to walk unaccompanied through this part of the town - were so willing to have this shameful scene filmed.

If ever the Serbs needed to find a reason for the Albanian exodus - other than the real reason which was no doubt murder and intimidation and dispossession - Nato has now provided them with it. "The loyal Albanians stayed, only the disloyal left," a middle-aged man explained on the Corso near the Grand Hotel in Pristina.

A likely story. Who, in heaven's name, are the loyal Albanians? The old man I found with a battered typewriter and a bag of dirty clothes hobbling past the post office, mumbling his desire to go to Skopje? The ghostly occupants of all those burned homes east of Pristina? The phantom Albanians who, according to Serb city officials, will have to wait a few days to collect their pensions now that Nato has destroyed a local welfare office?

What Albanian would ever choose to return here now? On the way to Pristina, amid the fields of vines and cherry trees and the blossom-smothered farmyards, the Serb tanks were hard to see. It took me all of five seconds to spot a T-72 in a farm scarcely 20 feet from me, so well had the hay and branches been piled around the tracks and hull. Only the end of the gun barrel glinting in the late afternoon sun gave the game away. In one small village, the Yugoslav army had parked its trucks beside cottages, on lawns, alongside barns, within the first trees of a great forest. Every house has its tank, I thought.

And I doubted very much if the Nato pilots were going to winkle this lot out. In one great valley, it was only when I was travelling beside a river that I saw the anti-aircraft guns dug in beside the banks, barrels on a flat trajectory, camouflage netting pulled over ammunition bunkers. This was not an army that was ready to die. Yet by the time we reached Pristina, there was little to hide.

We overtook two T-72 tanks thrashing down the highway in clouds of brown dust past burned-out homes and shops, their crews - each man with his head encased in that Russian-style rubber helmet so familiar from every Soviet war film - giving us the three-fingered Serb victory sign. Truck and jeeps and armoured vehicles hummed along the highway. The troops waved and shouted and, at one hillside bar where a platoon sat in the late afternoon drinking, a soldier pulled the opener on a beer can and sprayed the contents in a circle against the sunlight. We have won, the message meant. We have conquered. Kosovo is ours.

But is it? Every night, the local Serbs told us, the KLA came back. Every night there was shooting. Over all of this scene of frightening desolation - the very emptiness a terrible witness to the suffering of the Albanians - hung thick clouds of black smoke. Nato had totally destroyed the oil plant outside Pristina. When I passed it, the 40-foot flames were so bright they hurt my eyes. A direct hit. Like the Nato bombs that hit the very centre of Pristine.

The Serb version of a direct hit - and the exodus of Pristina's Albanian population is just that - is awesome and wicked. And Nato has - so far - killed only a fraction of the civilians whom the Serbs have mowed down. But it is now increasing its cull; the bombing of civilian homes at Aleksinac has now cost seven lives, Pristina's toll may reach twelve if two of the seriously wounded die. As the very same Air Commodore Wilby intoned a few days ago, "this is not a game of cricket." All too true - because there are fewer rules every day.