ANOTHER WAVE of human misery swept across Kosovo yesterday, with thousands more Albanians abandoning their homes for fear of a Yugoslav offensive backed by tanks and artillery. Cars, tractors hitched to trailers, and horse-drawn carts hauled the luckier ones down muddy tracks towards the relative safety of small towns in the Drenica region while, in the distance, shells crashed into the hillsides.
"We left our women and children in Cirez, in the mosque and the school, yesterday morning," said Gani Krasniqi, one of about 20 men in Trdevac. "They didn't have any food, and we don't know what happened to them. The road out is blocked now by soldiers and police."
The men, all from the village of Gladna Selo, where only a few days ago people were opening their homes to refugees, said they were too frightened to stay in the area but did not want to bring their families along the road to Glogovac, because of the Serbian advance. Now they feared their loved ones were trapped, with hundreds more from Gradica, since the road north of Cirez leads through Polance, scene of heavy fighting yesterday.
"Of course we are very worried, we don't have any news of them," said Mr Krasniqi, whose wife, 19-month-old son and mother are missing. "It is too risky to go to Cirez now."
His cousin Xhafer added: "The Serbs are near Gladna Selo, in positions with snipers. You cannot go back into the village because they shoot at you." As he spoke, another shell sounded. Soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) organised an evacuation of the civilian population in Drenica, dispatching tractors to out-lying houses to collect people. Others simply walked out. "Don't take photographs, bring bombs," one man called out.
Small children and elderly women wept, and everyone told the same story: the Serbs were close and the Albanians were terrified. "We escaped along the road during the night," said Mr Krasniqi. We don't have any place to stay. I don't know where we will sleep tonight."
Earlier that day, aid agencies including the United Nations, had delivered food, blankets and medicines to a warehouse in a suburb of Glogovac, where as many as 20,000 newly displaced people were seeking shelter. "We can't go to Glogovac because it is dangerous to be in the city - for example, there were massacres in Srbica," said Mr Krasniqi. "We heard that seven or eight people were killed there."
Along the main road towards Srbica, Serbian forces waited around tanks flying the red, white and blue flag of Yugoslavia. But they had not managed to link up with their comrades attacking the KLA from the north, around Polance.
In Srbica, policemen ordered journalists to leave immediately, as armoured personnel carriers jostled for space with army vehicles and masked policemen. "The situation is very tense, everybody is inside their homes and nobody is going out," said one of the few civilians who had ventured abroad.
Broken windows and burning houses were evidence of Saturday's police operation in which, according to locals, officers went house-to-house demanding money. "They came into my house and they asked for money. Then one in a mask asked for my brother. I said he had gone to Mitrovica, and he said, OK, send him my regards and tell him we will be back," said one young woman. "If there was no money, they killed someone."
She had heard reports of five or six such killings, but, like Mr Krasniqi, had not witnessed any. The rumours have not been confirmed by any independent source. As she spoke, there was the boom of artillery fired from the ammunitions factory in Srbica, a base for Yugoslav forces.
North-east of the town,plumes of dark smoke rose from the village of Gornje Prekaz, held last week by the KLA. Yugoslav troops strolledthrough snowy fields, away from the burning buildings and towards the armoured personnel carriers parked on the main road by their comrades.
South of the town, rebels fought a fierce battle with Yugoslav troops backed by tanks and artillery trying to take control of the road to Glogovac. One bridge had been destroyed in the fighting, another was mined and a third was slightly damaged by explosives. "Go back, it's not safe," said one Yugoslav soldier, as heavy machine-gun fire rattled in the distance.
"Today our soldiers are resisting as never before on the road from Polance," said Gani Koci, a KLA spokesman in the headquarters village of Likovac, itself a target of shelling yesterday. "For them it is important to open the main road." But for the rebels, he said, the main concern was to evacuate civilians safely from the war zone.
Whether Glogovac counts as a safe place remains to be seen. More than 500 people are crammed into one school building, while 120 families are camped in another. Every house contains at least 10 new guests.
"Conditions are very bad. We don't have running water or electricity, so there is a risk of diseases," said Jusuf Dobra of the Mother Teresa aid agency. "Considering the number of people who are here and those still coming, I don't think there will be enough food. These home-owners cannot provide for the refugees for more than two days."
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