'TWAS NOT a famous victory. And as we followed the Yugoslav Third Army out of northern Kosovo yesterday and saw all the young men who would have fought - and died - in their battle with equally young British and Americans and French and Italians, a terrible reality dawned upon the Serb people. They stood by the road, weeping and giving the retreating soldiers the three-fingered victory salute of Serbia - and then they went to their homes, many of them, and packed their bedding on to the roofs of their cars and drove away behind their soldiers with their stiff-faced, grieving families.
It was only the start of the Third Army's withdrawal, but it was real enough; a juggernaut of supply trucks and armoured personnel carriers and bus-loads of troops and ambulances and Praga anti-aircraft gun-trucks and lorryloads of soldiers in steel helmets draped with plastic camouflage leaves.
One soldier left with his German shepherd dog sitting beside him in the cab of his truck, another with a photograph of old Marshal Tito pinned to the back of his troop-carrier, the founder of the Yugoslav National Army standing at his desk in a blue suit in a Yugoslavia long lost. Not Milosevic, but Tito.
Up in Belgrade, of course, when the joy-shooting and fireworks had died down, the pro-Milosevic television was celebrating a "victory" which had been achieved - wait for it - "thanks to the peaceful policy of our President, Slobodan Milosevic."
An exclusive victory this, it seems, like the victory of Mark Antony at Actium, of Custer at the Little Bighorn, like Rommel's victory at El Alamein.
For the Serbs of Kosovo - for the tens of thousands of decent, worthy Serbs who are not war criminals or militiamen - it is a tragedy of epic proportions. And for the Albanians - deliverance, or political betrayal?
As we threaded our way through the 15-mile-long convoy of Yugoslav armour and trucks humming up the highway to Raca, there was time enough to reflect on Serbia's defeat after almost three months of Nato air raids, after thousands of Serb deaths - 1,600 of them civilians - and after the loss in action of not a single Nato soldier.
We drove with these soldiers through valleys and gentle fields that might have been Kent were it not for the burned houses amid the fields of crimson poppies. One home in Podujevo - a ghost town of smashed Albanian houses and shops with a clutch of terrified Serb civilians at a street corner - was still smouldering, set alight, I suspect, by four ugly, shaven-headed, bearded men we saw in a white car.
But the soldiers didn't look like the "degraded" army of Nato-speak. Their soldiers smiled and gave the three-fingered salute and sat chatting or sleeping in their trucks. The Prizren Brigade of the Third Army was in full camouflage kit, their faces bronzed by days in the sun and long nights in the open. And not a single vehicle - not a single lorry or Praga or personnel carrier - had a single scratch on it, not even a bullet hole. If Nato's bombs were destroying the Yugoslav Third Army, then a lot of the Third Army had kept a lot of their kit and troops in perfect condition. They left, most of them, not as a rabble but as soldiers withdrawing in good order.
And they would, I think, have fought had Nato come. Goran, a young army doctor from Nis to whom I gave a lift on the way back to Pristina - his departure will come later - said that his greatest concern had been KLA guerrilla attacks. "Of my four best friends at Podujevo, one was shot dead by the KLA 10 days ago, another wounded," he said. "This is Serbia and the KLA never respected this. It is my opinion that we should not be leaving here like this, that we should not be withdrawing. We should have fought."
And he pulled out his wallet and produced every soldier's dream: a photograph of a beautiful child with brown hair sitting on a chair. "She is my first daughter, Miljana, and she is just 18 months old," he said.
And I thought of other family snapshots I had seen in Kosovo, in "cleansed" Albanian villages and beside the road to Djakovica. Here on this road on which I was driving, The Independent's Albanian interpreter had undergone her moment of terror with Serb paramilitaries just seven weeks ago.
And all those gutted homes among the poppy fields have created a terrible legacy of contempt as well as hatred. Most accounts talk of execution and rape by the paramilitaries and by the drunken "White
gles" gunmen from the Drina river. But those murderers contaminated - if only by association - every Serb who held a gun in Kosovo. And that includes the Yugoslav Army. I know Yugoslav soldiers who have been sickened by these crimes. But they could not - or did not - stop them. Military officers were talking yesterday of 800 arrests of paramilitary men by the Serb authorities, of sentences of up to 20 years for murder. They talked of one Serb gunmen sentenced for killing an Albanian family of 15. A bit late, I thought.
And I'd like to know more about all those court cases and all that Serb justice meted out to the killers of Kosovo.
The Serbs of Kosovo tried to give their soldiers their support as they drove away from Serbia's most sacred soil. On a road bridge someone had strung a banner which said "We live for freedom."
At Luzane the Prizren Brigade fired into the air with their Kalashnikov rifles, a spray of golden cartridge cases falling like rain through the brown dust of the trucks. One army lorry carried a photograph of a young and half-naked woman on its bonnet. Another bore the red, white and blue flag of Yugoslavia. A pretty Yugoslav soldier sat in the back of one truck, her blonde plaits hanging over her tunic.
At just one point on the highway three Albanian women in scarves watched the Third Army in retreat. Thanks to Nato, these soldiers are going. Thanks to Nato, those three women will no longer have the chance of independence from Serbia in three years' time - as they were led to believe after March's Paris "peace" talks. For them, too, this may not prove a famous victory.
Yugoslavia's heavy armour and tanks and anti-aircraft missiles will be hauled up this road in the coming days and then will come the Serb police and the paramilitaries (those of the latter who have not already made it back to what is now called "Serbia proper").
And there will follow, too, the thousands of Serbs abandoning the land of their fathers, just as the Serbs fled Krajina and eastern Croatia and eastern Bosnia. I saw them yesterday, their little Yugo cars hugging the back of the last convoy from Pristina, women in the back, men in the front. The world is not going to care about their dispossession. Serve them right, the world will say.
And what message will they take with them to Nis and Novi Sad and Kraljevo and Belgrade and the other bombed cities of Serbia? I came across a smart young machine-gunner guarding his army's main supply route in the shadow of an ancient Serbian church yesterday. His black beret and camouflage tunic and webbing were spotless, his English almost as clean. How did he feel, I asked. "I am a soldier," he replied. "And I do not have political views." Oh but you do, I said to myself. You do.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies