WITH SMILES and a few brave thumbs up, locally hired Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) staff waved off the international monitors pulling out of Kosovo, thus paving the way for Nato air strikes against Yugoslav forces. The implications of yesterday's evacuation could hardly be more momentous.
The first orange OSCE cars began the two-hour trek to Macedonia before dawn, amid a gentle snowfall, along treacherous, freezing roads. The monitors were in sombre mood, sad to be leaving and extremely worried about the fate of Albanian villagers in rebel territory, left to the mercy of the Yugoslav Army and police forces.
Serb forces apparently launched an attack on Drenica, the Kosovo Liberation Army stronghold, even before the OSCE representatives had crossed the border.
"I'm going to be back soon. I'd rather not be doing it because it's going to be a lot of work coming back," said Major-General John Drewienkiewicz, the Briton who heads the OSCE operations in Kosovo. "It's become necessary because of the continued lack of cooperation from the Yugoslav side." He was, however, "very" fearful for the Albanian population "without us to be the conscience [of the Serbs]".
Verifiers gathered at the regional headquarters in Pristina waited in the hallway for instructions, while a bitch and her puppies slept under the reception desk. "Okay, start your engines and wait, and I will come and check your manifests and your passports," shouted one monitor, like a bizarre kind of tour rep. The foreigners said their last goodbyes to the local security staff. "I'm ready to leave too," quipped one guard, but he was not part of the evacuation.
There was a strange, awkward atmosphere. No one was sure whether the orange convoy would be allowed to leave in peace - and no one knew what would happen to those they left behind. As the vehicles pulled out, the local guard waved and gave them a thumbs-up. But behind the good cheer, there was much anxiety. "It's very difficult," said one Albanian. "I hope Nato will come, because we cannot live like this - every day five people dead, or 10 people dead. At 5pm you go home to sleep because you cannot go outside. I'm not scared but ... it's a little bit difficult." A few minutes after he spoke, a Yugoslav army armoured column - at least 10 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, anti-aircraft guns and an armoured ambulance - pulled out of barracks in Pristina, heading west towards Drenica.
Two hours later came news of fighting in the KLA stronghold, even as the monitors departed.
"I don't care if they cancel our visas, because the Nato boys aren't going to be coming in with visas and neither are we," said William Walker, American head of the OSCE mission, as he stood at the border watching his staff leave.
There had been tears and hugs as the order to evacuate came through at around 3pm on Friday afternoon. We had to break the news to one small office, since their regional centre had not yet radioed in. "Is it a mistake?" asked one in disbelief, until his radio suddenly chattered to life: "All patrols must return at once." Staff in offices small and large spent the afternoon shredding sensitive documents and burning archives, before loading cars with computers, satellite dishes, communications equipment, flak jackets and a few personal possessions. "It's chaos with all these papers," said one local assistant, on the verge of tears. "It's awful, really."
Ambassador Walker also broke down while addressing his staff, while other internationals handed out novels, chocolates and other gifts to their local colleagues. "They were hugging us, and saying `You will be okay'," said Aldrina Krasniqi, an interpreter who turned down the offer of a trip to Skopje because she wants to stay with her family. Both sides are acutely aware, however, that without the unarmed monitors the Albanian population has absolutely no guarantee of security.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies