Nato in Kosovo: Coming home - celebration of being alive

A frequent visitor to Kosovo returns to find joy in the ruins
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As Western ceasefire monitors pulled out of Kosovo in March, a convoy of Yugoslavian tanks headed west, to wreak its vengeance (again) on the villages of Drenica and the town of Srbica. A few days later we were gone too, abandoning our friends to their bitter fate, braced for another Balkan war at which we were merely spectators.

But how things have changed in the past three months. So many people outside seemed to want the Nato campaign to fail, and yet in just one week the soldiers of Britain and France, Germany, Italy and the US have transformed the political, physical and emotional geography of Kosovo.

The last time we were in Srbica, Yugoslavian tanks were pounding the surrounding hillsides. Soldiers and police were burning houses, rounding up civilians and forcing them out, but yesterday the main street, guarded by French Nato troops and KLA fighters, was full of civilians returning home. Suddenly we saw the familiar emerald green beret of Naim Bardiqi, the English-speaking KLA medic we had befriended. "Still alive!" he shouted as we hugged.

The first Kosovars to cross the border, mostly working as translators or drivers for the huge press pack, hug one another and gaze around in delight, despite the destruction all around. Kaltrina, my friend and former translator, left Pristina for Macedonia five weeks ago, leaving her parents and two younger sisters . "Everyone is fine, but my sisters - they keep telling me to whisper, not to laugh so loudly, not to think I am still in Skopje," she says. Already she has forgotten the fear that enveloped their lives for so long, and by the next day, her Serbian army neighbours are loading trucks and getting ready to move out.

Soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army are guarding the Malisevo police station, once a fortress manned by unfriendly men in blue camouflage, and rebel commanders are driving along main roads in battered jeeps that had belonged to the enemy. A bearded fighter who once ordered us to turn around is holding a pink rose, smiling and welcoming. He stands inside the ruins of the Ferro-Nickel Factory, a notorious spot where the security forces rounded up Albanians, executed them and allegedly burnt many bodies. We used to drive past at top speed, fearful of attracting the wrong attention. Now we wander around freely, worried only about mines and unexploded ordnance from a Nato strike.

And as for civilians, they poured out of flats and houses, everybody throwing flowers and chanting "Nato, Nato", and smiling. That was most extraordinary, unprecedented even: the fact that Albanians in Kosovo were instantly identifiable by their broad grins and relentless waving.

"We have been through hell and back," said Dugi, a reporter for Koha Ditore newspaper who stayed in Pristina throughout the war, switching apartments seven or eight times as different areas were cleansed and looted. "For me it was indescribable emotion to see Nato entering Pristina." Whatever the future may bring, the arrival of Nato troops was a moment to celebrate for almost everyone in Kosovo - save for the Serbs.

Out in the countryside one is struck again by the natural beauty of Kosovo, where towering mountains overlook flower-filled meadows and cool green woods. But this simply emphasises the wanton destruction wrought by man. Although the burning began last year, much of Kosovo was untouched until March. Now, as we drive through hamlet after hamlet where houses have been recently torched, where skeletons lie unclaimed, we wonder why. Is it simple spite? Or an attempt - a failed attempt - to ensure that the natives would never return?

Close to Pristina, we spot a uniformed soldier and a petrol can, close to billowing smoke. The last time I drove down this particular road the inhabitants were fleeing a military advance, but their houses were still intact. No more. I wonder at the energy, the planning, required to conduct arson at a time when fuel is supposed to be in short supply and when the fire-starters are preparing to go home.

Among the myriad examples of Serbian destructiveness we see evidence of Nato's awesome firepower. Former barracks and army posts are reduced to matchsticks. "Wow!" cried Alban, an Albanian photographer, as we sped past the ruins of a fortified tank base. Below one bridge, however, is a charred bus in which innocent civilians were killed.

Up ahead is the spot where I was stopped for speeding in March, when the Serbian police sought new ways to harass foreign journalists. Having no dinars, I turned to the Cafe Saranda, an Albanian bar, in search of change. Now, I notice, the cafe is a gutted ruin, and I wonder at the fate of its owners.

Craziest of all is the Grand Hotel in Pristina, which in 1991 warned "No Croats, no dogs, no Albanians". The former domain of secret policemen and surly staff has become a magnet for Albanians.

On the first day or two of the past week the Albanians came because they felt safest here. Despite the sinister atmosphere, they saw foreigners and satellite feed trucks - something to restrain the behaviour of the Serbs. They came just to get out, to find friends, to celebrate survival. They stood, mostly, in the doorway, since the lobby was still colonised by short-haired, hard-faced Serbian men.

Now they swarm to the Grand seeking work as translators, or offering flats or rooms for rent, since no one has any work. Pristina's once-bustling cafes and restaurants are all closed, many burnt down, and the same goes for shops, car mechanics, banks, supermarkets, almost every business.

Everywhere, though, we see reunions: friends charging across the street to greet someone who lived a stone's throw away, but who might as well have been in London. They are still giddy with delirium, those who have not lost their families, who have survived largely unscathed.

Everyone comes together in a great sweep of solidarity. We greet Serbian journalists with concern and ask, will you stay? A few say yes. Already some Serbs have been shot in Pristina and there is a limit to the policing powers of KFOR.

Some Serbs will remain in Pristina: those with a clear conscience, those with Albanian friends or neighbours, those who want to stay in the homes of their ancestors. But they will no longer hold the upper hand by right of birth, and they will find out (not for the first time) what happens when Slobodan Milosevic loses territory, and what it means to live in fear.