Home to Nothing: Kosovo's Displaced

Belgrade's new tack: Force ethnic Albanians back to villages. Little shelter; winter looms.

There are no signs of human life along this 10-mile dirt road in southwest Kosovo. No children playing in the murky streams. No shepherds to watch the animals. No workers to pick the overripe tomatoes and peppers.

Since the Serbian police and military attacked this stretch of western Drenica - the region west of the provincial capital of Pristina that has traditionally been a center of Albanian resistance - there are only empty villages and charred houses, abandoned cars and animals, bullet shells and tank tracks.

Here, the 50-day Serbian offensive is over - because there are no ethnic Albanians left to resist.

The war in Kosovo has entered a new phase, with Serbian forces focusing on the growing number of refugees, many of whom now live under plastic sheets or in crowded schoolhouses.

This week the Serbs raided Ponorac, a village in southwestern Drenica that had swelled with some 15,000 internal refugees.

"First the police destroyed and looted our houses," says Asllan Bajramaj, a local schoolteacher. "They said it was better for us to run to the woods, because Albanians don't belong here. Then they surrounded us with tanks and separated the men from the women and children. They beat the men and took them away."

Ethnic Albanian villagers say the Serbs are trying to disperse the massive groups of internal refugees by arresting the men and then forcing them back to their destroyed villages - hoping their families will follow.

"I can't go back to my village, because my house has been burned," says Haki Zenunaj, who had found refuge in Ponorac. "If the police don't kill me there, my Serbian neighbors will."

Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who are 90 percent of the region's population, have been calling for independence from Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic. Their armed resistance forces, known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), have fled to the woods after a massive Serbian offensive that has displaced more than 200,000 people.

Since the fighting began in late February, more than 500 people have been killed, most of them ethnic Albanians.

International officials have tried to exert pressure on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stop the violence - but have so far failed.

Mr. Milosevic resists international demands for experts to examine allegations of mass-grave sites. He also refuses to let up on the current offensive, which he says is aimed at "terrorists."

Meanwhile, international officials are struggling to bring the Serbs and Albanians together. US diplomats said last week that leaders from both sides had agreed in principle to grant Kosovo interim autonomy. But the plan was dismissed by important hard-line elements in both Belgrade and Kosovo.

Making matters worse, it is no longer clear who speaks for the ethnic Albanians. Ibrahim Rugova, a US-backed pacifist, appears to be losing popularity. The KLA, under different leadership, is becoming divided and has been left out of negotiations.

AS winter approaches, the situation is desperate for some 50,000 refugees who are living in the open.

"They burned our houses, our clothes ... every single thing we had," says Syleman Demaj, a refugee from Ponorac. "Winter is coming, and we have only the clothes on our backs."

John Shattuck, US assistant secretary of State for human rights, toured the region recently with former Senate majority leader Bob Dole and cited "acts of punitive destruction on a massive scale."

Reporters Sept. 7 stumbled upon a military operation near the village of Kraljane and were taken at gunpoint to the courtyard of an abandoned farmhouse and held for more than an hour.

Asked about the tanks reporters had seen driving east, a Serb policeman laughed. "Don't worry, those are only tractors," he said. "They can't hurt anybody."

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