Kosovo's fighters will do it their way

Hugh Barnes, behind Serb lines with the KLA, finds that the fiercely determined soldiers think weste

The damage in the town of Globocica, in southern Kosovo, is near absolute. In the company of the Kosovo Liberation Army, I spent a couple of days in the hills overlooking the twisted shreds of a large transport vehicle that the Serbs had blown up on the edge of this formerly Albanian settlement. The scattered metal body parts may have been the remains of a bus or van. But none of the dozen KLA rebels I spoke to could remember what had happened there. So many things have been blown up in Kosovo during the past few weeks that you begin to take wreckage for granted.

Globocica is an old town, long and narrow, on a shelf of rough farmland between the mountainside and the border with Macedonia. Most of the houses are made of wood and stone, nearly all of them with an open second storey, which is the Albanian way of building - or so I was told by Ibrahim, a short, chunky man in his late thirties, whom I accompanied on a reconnaissance of Serb guard posts and machine-gun nests. As we climbed the hills, past donkeys and abandoned horse-carts, lopsided haystacks and wandering sheep, Ibrahim began to act disconcertingly like a professional tour guide, waving his hands to indicate the farmhouse where two other KLA recruits, whom I shall call "Brahim" and "Mustafa", had spent the past seven or eight days hiding from the Serb patrols.

The house itself existed in a kind of time warp. A pair of jeans was still hanging on a clothes line next to the back door. The other side of the building was even more surreal because, if you pressed your nose to the window, you could get a view that took you back into the past. The kitchen table was set for dinner. The cups and plates were neatly laid out and frozen in time like a kind of Balkan Pompeii. Everything was just as it had been on the evening of 24 March, when Nato launched its bombardment of Yugoslavia and Brahim's family escaped to Macedonia fearing Yugoslav reprisals.

At dawn, Globocica is still sunk in shadows, while the snow-capped peaks of Macedonia are bathed in pink sunlight. It's a beautiful effect but not conducive to keeping a lookout for enemy approaches, because you tend to see things in the distance clearly while missing what is right under your nose.

That is what happened to us. We were suddenly disturbed by the sound of boots against the gravel at the end of the lane. Three soldiers carrying M-16 rifles were marching behind a tractor that was on its way back from a looting expedition up the valley. They carried a pile of clothes, blankets, televisions.

Ibrahim and I squirmed on our bellies in the grass, which was still covered in frost, but the soldiers turned off the lane on to the asphalt road leading back down to the barracks.

For several days, the KLA had been fighting a low-key war in the south of Kosovo, mostly holding its ground. It had no option. Rescue missions to the neighbouring towns of Gnilnane, Dakovica, Urosevac and others ravaged by the Serbian offensive were impracticable for a such a unit, because unlike their comrades to the west and the north - the kacaks, or outlaws, whose hi-tech, state-of-the-art resources you read about in the more lurid accounts of skirmishing on the Kosovo-Albanian border - these rebels had a limited stockpile of weapons. Two guns between four soldiers, who nevertheless continue to believe, as the US defence secretary, William Cohen, apparently does - or so he told a Senate committee earlier this week - that the KLA "over time will defeat Milosevic's army".

That morning, artillery explosions echoed through the border mountains, but not as frequently as the previous day when Serb forces were reported to have shelled pockets of refugees in the Malisevo, Shala and Kacanik regions of central Kosovo as well as in some western areas. A dead silence hung over the valley. The Yugoslav snipers in the hills were the teeming maggots in its corpse.

I had come to Kosovo because no foreign journalist had witnessed the last crucial weeks of the Serbian offensive. I went north through Macedonia to Tetovo in the north-west and then to Jazince on the Kosovo border. Here the short history of the KLA, its brutality and corruption - the vendettas, the intrigues that have unravelled since its inception in 1993 - are still shrouded in a fog of rumour and folklore.

Habib, who ran the local cafe in the border village swamped by 90,000 refugees, introduced me to Agim, a tall, dapper man who talked about the holy war of the Albanian people. Agim said: "If you ask me, we've relied too much on the west. We've trusted too much, and been patient too long . . . We have to go our own way. Just give us the weapons and we'll finish the job."

Speaking to Agim, it was easy to discount reports that the KLA has press-ganged many ethnic Albanians in order to bolster its ranks for what could become all-out warfare. Macedonia's president, Kiro Gligorov, has accused the KLA of trying to destabilise his tiny republic, with its potent mixture of Slavs and Albanians. In Jazince, though, the guerrillas received material and morale-boosting support. Agim told me that, in 1991, he had fought for Milosevic as a Macedonian conscript against Croatia. "I go to war," he said, "because I'm Albanian. We will not stay calm. We will raise ourselves. We will fight bare-handed."

In Jazince that afternoon, a new convoy of refugees was spotted heading for the Globocica crossing. These people were refugees from the Gnilnane region of southern Kosovo, and it was reported by mobile phone from KLA guerrillas inside the province that they had spent 17 days in the mountains before being seized by a Serb patrol that proceeded to rob them and then march them to the border. Most of the 3,000 refugees were destitute and traumatised; tuberculosis was spreading among them. Yet the prevailing mood was one of bewildered acquiescence.

I asked Osman Soka, whose 17-year-old son had been killed by the Serbs the day before, if he blamed Nato for its indiscriminate bombing of Yugoslavia. For the only time during our conversation he became animated. "Nato is right," he shouted. "And they must continue and if it is possible bring in ground forces. We have not left Kosovo because of Nato. We have left because of Serbian terror."

"These people are not peasants," said Dr Skanda Syla, an Albanian doctor from Pristina who was working 24-hour emergency shifts for the International Medical Corps. He gestured towards the families now sitting in the mud at Jazince. "Many of them are well-to-do, educated people. Doctors, professors, lawyers. They have spent a lifetime building homes and careers in Pristina and elsewhere. And now they are being treated as if they were less than human."

It was in the mud at Jazince that I met Ibrahim, a Macedonian Albanian and new KLA recruit who had somehow inveigled his way past the border guards. He told me that the Serb police regularly abandoned their duties at the border in order to cross over and drink small cups of sugary coffee with their friends in the Macedonian police. At such times, he went on, it was possible to slip back into Kosovo, where he was eager to meet the next convoy of refugees that had been sighted just outside Prizren.

That was how we came to meet Yetmir Lami, a legendary figure in the turbulent history of the KLA. Lami was in ebullient mood until I brought up the subject of the innocent victims of Nato's bombing of a railway bridge outside Belgrade on 12 April. "Why is Belgrade so important to your consciences in the west?" he shouted. "There were 103 Albanian villages razed to the ground, and many of them are still burning. Hundreds of thousands of people have been expelled from their homes. Now you say Belgrade is symbolic! Why are the burning houses of Albanians not symbolic?"

Lami sat in a chair outside the hut that serves as his field headquarters. He lent forward slightly and began to distinguish the KLA's approach from the more peaceful efforts of Ibrahim Rugova. In the present climate of awful destructiveness, many politicians like Rugova are being rejected because their language of non-violent protest seems inadequate, their actions inept, and because they give the impression - largely exaggerated - that in their opposition to Nato's bombing they are merely kowtowing to Belgrade.

I asked whether he thought that the viewpoints of the KLA and Rugova were opposed. He said, with unexpected directness, "No. Rugova is a great man, one of the great men of Kosovo."

I asked if he would let me stay in one of the KLA's camps in Albania to undergo the customary 20-day training to fight in the war. He shook his head. "We can't depend on people like you. Just as we can't depend on Nato. You must understand: foreign betrayal is taken for granted. We are repeatedly sold out, taken lightly, deceived, ignored. Well, never again."

When I said that I was impressed by the KLA's continuing preparedness to put its neck on the block, and suggested that this proved the indomitable courage of the long-suffering Albanian people, he answered cryptically: "I was the proverbial Albanian, the first-born son. In Albania, we have a saying. Two for Kosovo, and one for me. Every family, in other words, is prepared to sacrifice two of its children in the fight for liberation."

He asked about the circumstances of the refugees being held at Jazince, and grew distressed when I told him about the abject condition at the border post. Then he praised the Albanians of Jazince who represented, he said, all that was generous, courageous and enlightened about the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Getting up to leave, he said that he had tried to get the story of his people's hardships to the outside world: he was worried that nobody really knew what was happening in Kosovo.

The only reply I could think of was that I would try to write about it.

This article appears in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie