They drift down from the woods, bearded ghosts with Kalashnikovs. They attack Serbian tanks and columns, are often ambushed or take heavy losses, and melt back into the mountains.
The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rose out of the countryside to fight two years ago, a crowd of peasants, Marxists, dissidents, bandits, and students frustrated with the Gandhi tactics of ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who worried that any war with the Serbs would inaugurate a near-holocaust of the Kosovar Albanians.
Now with war, Albanians are body and soul behind the KLA, which was badly beaten and scattered by the Yugoslav Army after NATO airstrikes began. Poorly armed, fighting a superior army, they live under great pressure (see related story, page 6). For Kosovar Albanians they are beloved heroes, though not well known.
No one person yet runs the KLA. Not quite an army, and not quite a government, recently KLA leaders have taken bold moves to become both. Yet therein lies a sensitive problem - one few Kosovars talk about but that is now felt keenly among those thinking about what happens after the war, if Kosovo becomes an international protectorate.
Publicly, Kosovar Albanians say the only issue now is a military solution; all else is gab. But privately, worries are developing over what Kosovo will look like if the KLA, not NATO, is viewed as the winner of the war.
Kosovars worry about what some call a chaotic and coercive Che Guevara or Fidel Castro-style leadership emerging, a martial order unlettered in the rules and modes of the civil society that city Kosovars developed over two decades. In the macho warrior culture of the rural Balkans, to the victor goes not only glory and spoils, but also leadership and authority.
"I love those guys," says a young refugee woman from Pristina who has frequent contact with the KLA. "But believe me, I don't want them in power."
For the United States and NATO, the KLA brings into the foreground several key questions: how to arm the KLA if NATO ground troops are not used, what role the KLA plays if NATO troops are used, how the KLA will be later disarmed (especially sensitive), and even whether Serbs will be allowed to live safely in a new Kosovo.
Senators such as Joseph Lieberman (D) Connecticut want to arm the KLA. Defense Secretary William Cohen speaks optimistically of the KLA gaining strength. Yet NATO officials and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are not ready to arm the rebels.
The dilemma is unusual. Most Kosovars want the KLA to do well, brilliantly. For reasons of pride, they do not want to inhabit land completely liberated by another power. At the same time, they do not want the KLA to be winners, but rather partial winners - one reason they hope NATO does not leave the dirty job of pushing Serbian forces out of Kosovo to the KLA alone.
"Politically, it will not be good for the KLA to win," says a senior member of a leading Pristina business that played a role in February's Rambouillet talks in France. "We won't be able to build an open society, and you may even see political elimination by KLA" - a veiled reference to threats of assassination that some urban Kosovars claim have been made by KLA members in heated arguments.
Yet the KLA story is an unfolding drama that makes any fixed reading impossible. In recent weeks, a host of more educated and worldly Albanians from New York, Berlin, and Rome have funneled into Albania to join the KLA. For now, the new arrivals are not trained and are organizing support and serving food. But in time, the bulk of the KLA may shift from its earlier incarnation as isolated cells of insurrectionist farmboys with a vendetta to a more structured army-in-the-making.
Into international spotlight
Also, while the KLA learning curve has been steep, it has been consistent, say those close to it. The Rambouillet talks were a turning point that brought the KLA into the international limelight for the first time and moved it forward light-years as a political body.
Indeed, one reason for the Rambouillet talks was to put Kosovo under a three-year interim government that would disarm the KLA, bring it under political discipline, and allow its rough edges to smooth and a civil identity to develop.
Yet the furies of war have thrown things askew. Shortly after NATO airstrikes began, the KLA's political wing, while turning over the ground battle to its hard-core military wing, declared itself the new government of Kosovo. This means there are now two bodies claiming authority over Kosovars, the old government in exile, and the new KLA government.
In an April 2 communiqu, the KLA said the new government was appointed in consultation with the old de facto prime minister-in-exile, Bujar Bukoshi. But sources say this is not the case. In the communiqu, the KLA claimed eight of 15 ministry positions, with KLA political leader Hashim Thaci, a Rambouillet negotiator, as prime minister.
"Someone had to act as a government on the territory," says Adelina Marku, spokeswoman for Arben Xhaferi, the most popular ethnic Albanian leader in Macedonia, who is reputed to have KLA ties. "The KLA has taken that responsibility. Better to have a figurehead toy president than none. It doesn't mean the end of democracy."
"I am disappointed that they formed a government while we were away," says a computer specialist from Pristina who is now roaming the cafes of Tetovo, where much of Kosovo's urban elite gather. "I mean, I don't know who these guys are."
A large gap exists between urban and rural Kosovars. Some problems are caused by KLA Marxist rhetoric, a home-grown patois of revolutionary slogans without a real ideological center that makes it hard for the two sides to talk. Urban ethnic Albanians developed an parallel system of schools, colleges, health-care facilities, and political structures under the Serbs and began sending their children to schools in Europe and America. Some of them depict the KLA as a step removed from the hillbillies in the American movie "Deliverance."
Still rough edges
The question now for urban Kosovars and NATO officials is whether, after the war, you can take the country out of the KLA boy. Last summer a group of ex-Yugoslav Army officers joined the KLA hoping to restructure the group. They failed.
Last October when the first special envoy from Europe went to Kosovo to establish KLA ties, a major step, he was treated in an unfortunate manner. The envoy, a senior diplomat and a prospective friend, came with an open mind, he recalls. He was whisked through a maze of villages and finally met a young man with sunglasses who identified himself only as "No. 7." The diplomat asked a series of opening get-to-know-you questions. For each, the man said only, "I can't answer that." Finally, the diplomat asked, "Well what can you answer?" - at which point he was given a small speech telling Europe to stay out of Kosovo but to give arms. Then No. 7 left.
"They were a rough group, to put it mildly," the diplomat recalls.
One young refugee whose brother is a senior KLA commander in the field says he will do anything he can to help them. Yet he later confides that his brother, a Western-educated scientist, told him recently that if Kosovo quickly gets independence and the KLA is in charge, "I am going to leave for Europe. I will fight to stop Serbs killing us, but I won't be here while we kill each other."
"New developments and new groups will emerge in the KLA," says an Albanian scholar in the US, who is following the issue closely. "I think the cooperation between [all Albanians] will continue to grow."