'They have stolen everything. TVs, telephones, furniture, even clothes'

Kosovo was mourning the murders, looting and arson that shattered the fragile reconciliation process of the Albanian and Serbian communities when the Nato secretary general flew in this week to declare that such violence would not be tolerated again.

Kosovo was mourning the murders, looting and arson that shattered the fragile reconciliation process of the Albanian and Serbian communities when the Nato secretary general flew in this week to declare that such violence would not be tolerated again.

But for Radijka and Liyana, two women driven with their families from their homes in the capital, Pristina, by a baying mob, all that meant nothing. Huddled in the sports hall of a school in Gracanica - one of the few remaining Serbian enclaves in the former Yugoslav province - they were angry, confused and full of foreboding.

These were among 1,200 Serbian civilians "cleansed" from their homes in the towns and villages by Albanians and now herded into makeshift refugee centres.

Neither woman wanted to give her surname because they feared retribution. "It is the second time that I have had to run away like this, hiding, frightened for our lives,'' said Radijka, 41. "After the war in 1999 I fled with my husband and children from Llubljana to Pristina. We thought things were getting better, and we were safe there. Now this has happened. I don't know what is going to happen to us, but I cannot face a third time of this. We cannot go back to our homes, it is simply not safe there.''

Radijka, her 49-year-old husband, Mirko, and their three children were at home in the YU Apartments in the centre of Pristina, inhabited solely by Serbs, when a crowd of about 2,000 surrounded the building about 5pm on Wednesday.

For the next eight hours they and their neighbours were besieged by groups of men hurling bricks and Molotov cocktails. The attackers broke down the doors and attacked many with knives and baseball bats. Dozens were injured, and at least one man, Dragan Smiliavic, a United Nations official, is critically ill with stab wounds.

The Serbs were eventually rescued by a unit of Nato's Kosovo Force. Some are now at Slim Line, the military barracks in Pristina where the newly arrived British troops have also taken up residence. Others are at Gracanica, among 10,000 fellow Serbs.

Liyana, 40, her 44-year-old husband, Zoran, and their five children were also part of the exodus. She, too, does not want to go home. "What is the point? They have stolen everything, TVs, telephones, furniture, even our clothes. A policeman has been to our flat, and he said there is nothing left. What they had not taken, they had smashed,'' said Liyana.

"It is all very well for Nato to say now that they have sent more troops. But they were not there when we needed them. And they'll leave in a few weeks' time. If we go back to our homes, who will protect us then?''

A representative of the United Nations mission in Kosovo came in with photographs of the refugees' homes, many of them burnt after being ransacked.

A frail woman of 82, sitting rocking on a camp bed, stared at the photograph in her hand and would not let go. "She has no family. They smashed down her door and got in. Will you send her back for another experience like that?'' a Serbian Red Cross official asked.

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