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Signs of Everyday Life, War's Brutality Mingle Throughout Kosovo

Conflict: A U.N. inspection team journeys across the ravaged country and finds few people. 'It is a lot worse than we feared,' its leader says.

May 30, 1999|CANDICE HUGHES | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Here are some of the things they left behind: A sturdy brick house with flowers in the yard, a child-sized pair of slippers, a woolly brown dog and her puppies. A department store. A barbershop. Family snapshots. A baby's cradle. Four old men.

Kosovo is a land scoured of people, scarred by signs of hatred and war, littered with the debris of shattered lives. The United Nations says that about 830,000 ethnic Albanians have fled the Serbian province the past two months.

Kosovo has been closed to all but a few outsiders since the purge began, but refugees reaching neighboring Albania and Macedonia have told terrible tales of being driven from their homes by Serb police and paramilitary.

Last weekend, a U.N. team became the first international observers to visit Kosovo. Their extraordinary journey, shared by an Associated Press reporter, provided chilling, firsthand confirmation.

"It is a lot worse than we feared," Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the U.N. team, said Monday.

*

You can drive for miles in Kosovo and not see anyone in the lush green land edged with mountains. Houses on the horizon look like a witch's snaggleteeth; their blackened, burned walls jut into the sky. Blasted by heat, red tile roofs have caved in on charred timbers. Some still smell of smoke and fire.

Fields lie fallow. Untended cattle roam at will. Horses stray onto highways. Dogs wander in confusion; the scrawny bodies of many lie on the roads, although there are so few cars about, it's hard to fathom by what awful luck they were run over.

Streets echo with emptiness.

Much of Djakovica is wrecked, a ghost town. The only sound is the cawing of crows under a gray, gusty sky.

Djakovica's scars are many. There was heavy fighting there last year between Serb forces and the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army and another spasm of violence after NATO launched its air war.

NATO bombs have ripped off the side of the regional police headquarters. Shops are shattered, looted, vandalized. Broken glass litters the floors.

It is something you see almost everywhere now in Kosovo.

Parts of Podujevo, north of Pristina, the provincial capital, are almost as silent and devastated. Police cleared out Albanian neighborhoods; some of the residents are in nearby villages, but they are barred from returning. The army has mined the banks of the river where it runs through town to keep out rebel fighters.

Pristina is a shadow of what it was just two months ago. Once a multiethnic city of cafes, shops and streets that hummed with life, it is now a gloomy place where few people venture out. Once-teeming Albanian neighborhoods like Vranjevac are empty and silent.

The center of Kosovska Mitrovica, an industrial town once home to 100,000 people, is deserted, its buildings looted and burned. The big Lux department store is an empty shell. In a nearby barbershop, water pours from a broken tap onto a floor covered with shattered window glass and debris.

A month ago, people from Kosovska Mitrovica began streaming across the border into Albania. They described how Serb police and masked paramilitary forces cleared out the Albanian neighborhoods street by street.

The Serb who heads the regional government, Zdravko Trajkovic, confirmed the purge--but he called it a "preventive" action by police. From the official point of view, he said, any Albanian might be a KLA sympathizer.

"The authorities prevented them from doing what they intended to do and saved the citizens from terror as much as possible," he said.

In all, police cleared out 30,000 of the city's ethnic Albanians, once a majority there, as they are in the rest of Kosovo.

Trajkovic insisted that the goods from their shops were safely stored so the owners could someday reclaim them. After all, he said, standing amid the spooky ruins, Kosovska Mitrovica is a city "where people of mixed ethnicity lived in peace."

*

The Yugoslav government's official line is that ethnic Albanians have fled Kosovo because of NATO bombs, not ethnic cleansing. It offers no explanation for why Serbs didn't flee too.

Serb turf is clearly marked. Serb homes and businesses are marked with the Serb cross to warn off looters and burners.

Walls are scribbled with militant Serb graffiti. "Serbia--all the way to Tirana" (the capital of neighboring Albania) is the battle cry scrawled on the wall of a building in Kosovo Polje.

An army truck parked next to that slogan was covered with a white-and-blue tarp for the UNHCR, the refugee agency.

Serb soldiers are trying to fade into the civilian landscape to avoid the NATO missiles and bombs that rain down daily.

They travel in delivery vans, in passenger buses, in little red compact cars, in bread trucks--in just about everything but military vehicles.

They bivouac in civilian apartments, roadside restaurants, abandoned farmhouses. They've dotted the landscape with decoys--plastic SAM missile launchers, tanks disguised as haystacks, haystacks disguised as tanks. There are even rumors of a vinyl bridge.

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