THE FIRST Kosovo Albanian towns we came to were so peaceful. There were small mosques gleaming in the morning sun, farmers tilling with oxen, housewives coming out of a supermarket, a local bus. Forests stretched down to the roadside. Was this really the bandit land that Colonel Stojanovic had warned us about? "We have just entered the danger zone where we can be targeted from the air," the Yugoslav officer had told us. "And we shouldn't exclude a possible terrorist attack."
Then we noticed a group of Serb special police looking upwards and pointing. A faint puff of white smoke drifted over the fields, then another. At one point I heard Nato jets racing through the firmament, though I couldn't see them. And still we passed those dainty, undamaged homes. There were Albanians in the streets, hanging out washing on clothes lines, taking coffee in the shop at the corner.
It was the Kosovo Liberation Army that absorbed the mind of Colonel Stojanovic and the four Serb cops in the blue and white police car in front of our bus. According to Serb officials, the KLA had recently made incursions from Albania, attacking Serb villages and burning Serb homes. The local cops wore coloured cloth on their right shoulders, red in the first towns we passed through, red and pale blue in the next, and so on. The KLA have stolen so many police uniforms that the Serbs now have to colour code their men to prevent KLA imposters dressed as policemen driving into town for a shoot-out.
But after an hour's driving, there wasn't much left for the policemen to patrol. First one Albanian village, then a second appeared around the hills, a house burned there, a dynamited shop-front spilling into the road, a mosque with scorch marks at the top of its minaret. Then we turned a corner and saw the hills on fire. From forests and towns more than 10 miles away, smoke streamed into the sky. Each Albanian village was more damaged than the last, each more deserted.
Looking at this place was like trying to read a book in a strange language. A row of seven brand new homes lay beside a newly ploughed field, bright red roofs above gleaming balconies. The fourth house had been burned out; the rest were untouched, ready for proud new home-owners. A street of looted shops was followed by farms with women and children in the yards. Some Albanians worked the fields. I caught sight of a young boy and a middle-aged man sitting on a farm gate in the sun. It was a landscape without coherence.
The Serbian journalists on the bus beside me chatted among themselves as this frightening countryside bounced past us. In valleys far to the north, curtains of smoke streamed upwards - there must have been five or six square miles of land ablaze - while sparkling rivers wound south towards the snow-white mountains of Macedonia. Did the Serbian journalists not see the fires and the burned homes? We passed a newly torched Albanian house blazing away in the hot sunshine. Still no heads turned.
At the scene of the air strikes which massacred dozens of Kosovo Albanians last week - Nato's work, say the Serbs, and Nato has done precious little to convince the world otherwise - two buses passed us, crammed with Kosovo Albanian women and children, driving at speed through the dust, frightened faces at the windows. Again, the Serbian journalists paid no attention. Their interest was focused on the scene of slaughter and wrecked tractors.
When we stopped for a new police escort, some men beside the bus were calmly loading a truck with hundreds of bottles of orange juice from an Albanian warehouse. At one point a police car arrived and the occupants loaded the boot from the same building with bottles of Coke. It's thirsty work being a Serbian cop in Kosovo. Especially, it seems, when the towns are empty. Earlier in our journey, as we drove through Pozeranje, we suddenly caught sight of a group of 200 exhausted, fearful Albanians, old men and women holding plastic sacks of clothes. They must have been waiting for one of those buses heading for the border. It was their moment of catastrophe, the hour of leaving their homes for ever. In front of me, a Serb journalist puffed away on his pipe.
On the high, back road to Prizren, we climbed into the mountains, and the Serb villages. Some were intact, many others destroyed, every Serb house systematically set ablaze, the mountain homes gutted. The KLA, Madeleine Albright's friends - the men whose activities are recorded with approval by Nato press spokesmen in Brussels - had done this. Serbs "ethnically cleansed". It makes an odd headline. It has not been the stuff of newspaper reports. This was very definitely not CNN country.
Yet it is the Kosovo Albanians in their tens of thouands who remain the far greater victims. It is they who are being dispossessed on an epic scale. Further down the road, when we passed another abandoned village with a single, burning house, I looked at the Serbian journalists again. Still they surveyed the road with equanimity. Not quite all of them. In front of me, my wife Lara - a correspondent for the Irish Times - noticed that one Serbian woman journalist was wiping away a tear. Then the woman began writing a short letter in the Serbian language in her notebook. She handed it to Lara. "You'll find someone to translate this for you," it said at the top, and continued:
"Dear Lara, There are a large number of us who do not agree that the Kosovo/ Metohija problem should be solved in this way. Where are the people? Why are their houses and cattle abandoned? Where are the children? Why are they being punished? All the children in the world are the same, they should be allowed to play and laugh. God, when will the innocent stop suffering, regardless of which nation, which religious confession and which race they belong to?"
In this awful, sinister landscape, it read like the voice of God.
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