Shattered glass and shingles from blown-off roofs litter the streets of this little town in southern Kosovo. The shops along the main street have been ransacked, and many of the houses are nothing more than charred shells.
But nearly overnight, the desolation in Kacanik has been coupled with a return of life. After the hasty withdrawal of several thousand Serbian police and military personnel, British forces secured the main road passing through Kacanik to Pristina, the Kosovar capital, over the weekend.
At almost the same time, members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) descended on the ghost town, and ethnic Albanian refugees, eager to return to their homes, began trickling in on June 14.
Located in wooded hills and deep ravines, this town, with a prewar population of 10,000, exemplifies the challenges facing the Kosovo peacekeeping mission: keeping in check the KLA, which has flexed its muscle after the departure of Serbian forces; assisting with the investigation of alleged atrocities committed by Serbian forces, such as preserving evidence at apparent mass graves; and ensuring the safe return of refugees, with sufficient aid for them to rebuild their lives.
Ethnic Albanian rebels entered Kacanik almost the moment Serbian forces left, establishing the police station as the brigade command headquarters and hoisting the Albanian flag over the school building.
"I joined one year ago to win our liberation and to protect the civilian population," says Hajredin Hasaj, a teenager in a black military-police uniform with a red KLA badge. "I'm an optimist, and think it's going to get better now," he says.
Although only a few hundred Serbs originally lived in this predominantly ethnic Albanian town, Mr. Hasaj says he's glad they're all gone: "I never had any Serbian friends anyway."
For areas of Kosovo with larger Serbian populations, however, the prospect of KLA fighters moving in is causing panic, and thousands of Serbs have fled. With the KFOR peace force providing a cover, it appears that the KLA is moving into towns like Kacanik as the authority.
"Having the KLA here is not a problem, as long as they're not carrying any weapons," says Lt. Chris Kushmaul, a platoon commander in the 82nd Airborne Division patrolling the road through Kacanik. "They're cooperating completely."
But according to a June 15 wire report, Hajrush Kurtaj, a KLA commander, vows the KLA will remain in the hills near Kacanik with their weapons.
Under the peace agreement, KFOR is charged with demilitarizing the KLA. Only the commander and KLA police have permission to carry handguns.
The sudden change in events has lifted the spirits of many returning refugees. As he sorts through his ransacked family compound, where the furniture is overturned and clothes, appliances, and family photos cover the floors, Adnan Burrniku takes a break.
"I didn't believe this would happen so soon," says the former court clerk and local human rights activist, who fled to neighboring Macedonia three weeks ago.
Like other returning villagers, Mr. Burrniku recalls with horror two days in April, when Serbian forces allegedly killed dozens of ethnic Albanians in the region and buried the bodies in several mass graves around Kacanik.
While United Nations forensic experts have not yet reached the sites, KFOR forces have cordoned off three locations in the Kacanik area. Behind a gas station on the main road from Macedonia, where the 82nd Airborne Division has set up a checkpoint, turned-over earth can be seen in the back of a cemetery.
If confirmed, Kacanik would be the first discovery of mass graves in Kosovo after the 2-1/2-month war.
Also launching postwar operations in Kosovo are international aid organizations. Currently the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is sending out assessment teams in the wake of the KFOR advance, says Paula Ghedini, spokeswoman for the organization in Pristina. In the first week, she expects a field presence in all areas within KFOR's Phase 1 region, including Kacanik.
For ethnic Albanian refugees here, the shock of returning to destroyed houses is tempered by the comfort that NATO troops are rumbling over the border from Macedonia and Albania. In Kacanik, none can really grasp that US Army vehicles are patrolling the main road from the border. "When the Serbs came to my house, they taunted us, asking, 'Where are the Americans? They're supposed to be protecting you,' " says one woman.
STILL, the tasks facing returnees are formidable. "We cried when we saw this," says Arzije Burniki, as her husband, Veli, sweeps debris out of the charred remains of his smithy in front of the family's two-house compound. "But there are those who have lost family members. At least we're still alive."
The elderly couple fled to the woods with their children in early April, then crossed the border to the squalid refugee camps of Macedonia. Four sons were evacuated to Western Europe and one to Australia, says Mr. Burniki.
All the Burnikis have managed to save from their home is in two duffel bags and a couple of trash bags. Yet Mrs. Burniki shrugs and says, "With money, we can buy everything again."
The fact that Kosovo is still legally a province of Serbia doesn't seem to disquiet returning refugees in the least. "That doesn't bother me, because in practical terms, Kosovo is not part of Yugoslavia anymore," says Burrniku, the activist.