To Kosovo's ethnic Albanian rebels, "free" Kosovo is a murderous place where Serbian shells explode almost incessantly and snipers dispatch death from hiding places in forested ravines and cloud-wreathed ridge lines.
For more than a week, about 1,000 Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters have been punching a corridor down plunging slopes and twisted gullies into the province from bases 3,500 feet high on Albania's side of the Northern Albanian Alps.
The corridor is now said to be about five miles long. The KLA would have to advance another mile or so to break through to a rebel-held enclave near the village of Junik, where thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians uprooted by Serbian "ethnic cleansing" are believed trapped. Should they succeed, the rebels then hope to move on Decani, one of Kosovo's key towns and the site of a major Yugoslav military base.
The offensive appears to show that the KLA remains a viable force despite the hammering it has taken since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic unleashed his troops and police across Kosovo. In addition to the corridor, KLA units are said to be in control of enclaves like that around Junik, although other units are having to lie low or stay on the move.
Indeed, the rebels assert that backed by Western air power and supplied with modern weapons, they could spearhead a NATO ground invasion. President Clinton and his Western counterparts, however, remain adamantly opposed to arming them.
The KLA's lack of heavy weapons is apparent in the offensive for the corridor. While they have steadily won ground, seizing a Yugoslav barracks at Koshare, equipment including a bulldozer and truck, and large stocks of arms and food, the rebels' advance has been slow and bloody. They are outgunned by the Serbs, which forces them to do most of their hardest fighting at night; they must endure the snows and rains of the peaks, as well as thick clouds that in a firefight make it difficult telling friend from foe. Their casualty toll could not be learned.
Guerrillas claim that twice the Serbs have fired shells that released noxious gas and burned their eyes, cracked their lips, and made breathing hard. "Fortunately for us, there was a lot of wind and unfortunately for them, the wind blew toward their side," says Agron from Pristina. A doctor before joining the rebels, he says it was a "neuroparalytic" gas.
During a four-hour visit to the top of the corridor and nearby base camps, there was no sign of any NATO support for the offensive, even though American and British military officials were said to have visited the area last week. Yugoslav tanks, troops, and artillery opposing the rebels are untouched by NATO's bombs, as are watchtowers along the border from which Serbian artillery spotters direct fire.
Rebels wounded while fighting in the corridor agree on the need for immediate support from the 26 Apache helicopters the United States has begun deploying in Albania for use against Serbian police, troops, and armor.
"Our great hope is that the Apaches can change things," says Guri, of Suva Reka, who was recuperating from shrapnel wounds in the Albanian border town of Bajram Curri. "We can hold out until then. With the Apaches our problems will be solved."
As for the 35 days of NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia, he laments: "They have basically done nothing against the [Serbian] ground troops. At least we have not seen anything in the vicinity of the fighting."
The rebels appear to be suffering from other problems. There are no other points on the border from where they are mounting offensives despite the presence of large numbers of KLA fighters in northern Albania. Some KLA sources complain of a lack of coordination and competent leadership, saying attacks elsewhere would force the Serbs to divert forces away from the corridor.
The KLA is also hampered by a dearth of experienced fighters. Guri and other wounded rebels say they received only 15 days of training before being sent into the corridor. "Of course, it's not enough, two or three weeks to train, but in this situation, we really have no other choice," explains Dzafer, of Ferizaj. "Ten experienced guys go over with 20 with little experience."
Yet the visit to the front revealed a mood of optimistic determination among the fighters, many of whom returned from Western Europe and the US, where they had emigrated.
Fighters awaiting rotation into the corridor say radio monitoring of Yugoslav units shows troops with low morale, bewildered by the unknown territory, and beset by bad weather and shortages of food and ammunition. Serbian desertions, the rebels say, are constant. Some proudly display captured AK-47 assault rifles made at Zastava, Yugoslavia's main armsmaker.
"These guys are good fighters, have good equipment, but low morale," says one commander, who declined to be named. "We have taken a lot of prisoners." That statement could not be independently confirmed, and the whereabouts of any prisoners are unknown.
The KLA appears to be receiving help from the Albanian Army. Albanian soldiers bunkered along the border keep watch for Serbian counterattacks, shouting alerts when they detect one and then clearing positions that are filled by the rebels. The Albanian military also maintains liaison officers with the rebels and may also be providing them some trucks.
"This is all free Kosova now," exclaims Florin Krasniqi, a key New York-based KLA operative, using the Albanian word for the province as he points down a steep valley into the corridor. Behind him stands a crumbling, four-foot concrete obelisk marking the border of Albania and Yugoslavia, beside which grinning KLA fighters pose for snapshots.
On a ridge less than a mile below stands the barracks at Koshare that once housed Yugoslav border guards. Now it is the base of "Delta Force," a unit of some 200 KLA veterans who have been at the forefront of the offensive. But between the rebels and the village of Junik is said to be a strong force of Serbian troops and tanks dug in at the village of Batusa, protecting the strategic highway linking all of the main towns of western Kosovo, including Djakovica and Decani.
The top of the corridor is reached by a 10-minute hike from KLA base camps along muddy paths that skirt alpine pastures. Streams of crystal water course through ravines in which are set KLA camps of tents and plastic sheeting protecting piles of ammunition crates.
Huge divots in the pastures testify to frequent Serbian shelling; KLA fighters say Serbian gunners below fire randomly when the clouds blanket the hilltops.
Supplies are driven up from Bajram Curri in tractor-pulled wagons and then hauled to combat units on mules and horses. Fighters at rest occupy stone-walled homes of villagers who abandoned their farms when Serbian forces began shelling the area two weeks ago.
Outside one house, several guerrillas sit chatting atop one of 12 snowmobiles sent to them by supporters in the US.