Five burned-out villages straddle the main road through this farming area--silent witnesses to the latest Serbian police assault on ethnic Albanian separatists of Kosovo province.
The most visible signs of life are the stray cattle and horses left by fleeing owners to wander the streets.
For 23 miles along this road, no store is open and no farmers work the fields. Mosques, centers of worship for the ethnic Albanian communities of Kosovo, are battered and empty; one minaret was toppled, and another has a hole blown through it.
Two weeks ago, when the lights went out and the armored cars arrived, Decani, the largest village, had a population of 49,000. Today, not a single ethnic Albanian is in view. Nearly every home visible from the road is scarred by the attack; many are roofless, windowless hulks of charred brick or stone.
Western diplomats and relief workers allowed on the road since quiet returned last weekend said Thursday that the most striking feature of this offensive was not the firepower, the casualties or the brutality. It was the Serbs’ effectiveness at simply depopulating strategic acreage along the mountainous Albanian border that is coveted by Kosovo’s separatist guerrillas.
“The destruction is really heavy. The people are gone. It is a depressing sight,” Richard Miles, the senior U.S. diplomat in Yugoslavia, said after a journey up the road Tuesday.
Western officials estimate that 50 people were killed and 65,000 fled the area during the Serbs’ weeklong “Operation Decani.” That made it less bloody but more disruptive than the police assault last March in the Drenica Valley that suddenly turned Kosovo into Europe’s most troublesome conflict.
Kosovo is the poorest province of Serbia, the dominant republic of the Yugoslav federation that also includes Montenegro. Serbs control Kosovo’s government and security forces, but ethnic Albanians, most of whom want independence, make up 90% of its 2 million people.
In May, the Kosovo Liberation Army stepped up attacks on police patrols along the road through Decani, which parallels the border, hoping to win freer movement of its guerrillas and weapons across the mountains from bases in Albania.
Gen. Streten Lukic, the Interior Ministry officer who led Operation Decani, said his militarized police force did “serious damage” to the rebels and their supply lines in seven days of shelling and close combat that put the main road back under Serbian control.
To make the point, Lukic led a convoy of foreign journalists along the road under armored police escort Wednesday, through ghost town after ghost town, insisting at each stop that the blackened homes behind him had been targeted by police returning rebel fire from within.
At Decani’s police headquarters, he displayed eight tables full of automatic rifles, bazookas, grenades, recoilless cannons and other light weaponry reportedly seized from the rebels.
In Prilep, three miles to the south, he pointed out roadside piles of sandbags and two primitive trenches said to have been prepared in advance to fight off the assault.
“Our objective was to restore a normal flow of traffic on this road,” the general said, standing near a dying sheep. “That was our only objective, and this objective was achieved.”
Survivors who struggled across the mountains to Albania or fled eastward deeper into Kosovo disputed the police account, saying the assault was far out of proportion to any rebel presence or resistance and was meant to drive away the entire ethnic Albanian population.
“The police knew exactly where the [guerrilla] positions were, but they shelled many other homes as well,” said Meriton Isnici, 30, who helped evacuate wounded children from a village two miles from Decani and ended up a refugee in Pristina, Kosovo’s distant capital.
Cerim Baci, a 60-year-old Albanian who watched the assault roll into Decani, said he was stunned not only by its size but also by its undertone of ethnic hostility.
He counted 47 police vehicles in a caravan; one displayed a burning Albanian flag, he said, while another blared Serbian music that kept people awake at night after the shooting died down.
Another telltale sign was visible Wednesday: big splotches of fresh white paint, apparently applied in advance of the assault as a signal to the police, marked the windows of Serb-owned shops in the center of Decani. The shops were among the few buildings undamaged.
Not far from the shops was a row of modest, burned-out homes, one of them belonging to Uke Musa, 65, Baci’s brother-in-law.
Interviewed Thursday in Pristina, Musa denied that the guerrillas had used his home. Instead of holding their ground, he said, the few rebel fighters in Decani retreated to the next village, drawing away the police so civilians could escape by a different route.
It was only after the village was all but abandoned, Musa learned from a neighbor who stayed a few days longer, that police set fire to most of the houses. “They want us never to go back,” he said. “We have nothing to return to.”
There were scattered Albanian accounts of summary executions. The New York-based Human Rights Watch interviewed a young Albanian man who reported watching his brother and two companions die, shot in the back by police who ordered them to walk slowly from a house in Poplek on May 31.
Nine other men, seized by police after they converged on a crashed police car and held in the same village home, were among at least 200 Albanians listed as missing and feared dead in the past two weeks.
Albanians were not the only victims. Sava Janjes, a priest at Decani’s 14th century Serbian Orthodox monastery, reported the death of an elderly Serbian woman cut down by Albanian sniper fire in front of her home. Several Serbian families took refuge in the monastery, saying that Albanian neighbors had relayed orders from the guerrillas to leave their homes.
For all the destruction and exodus, there were remarkably few casualties among the combatants--four policemen and three guerrillas, according to Lukic--and little his police could show beyond a narrow strip of road.
“The terrorist activities are continuing,” Lukic said. “They’ve just withdrawn a little.” And there has been “an increase in groups and numbers” since rebel leaders issued a call this week for new volunteers.
Standing in the village of Gornje Strcoce, he told journalists that the police “will guarantee the security of anyone who wants to move back here to live in peace and order.”
At that moment, a breathless aide rushed forward to report the sighting of a man, possibly armed, in the nearby hills.
“OK, back in your cars!” the general commanded. “A group of terrorists is approaching.”
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