AT ONE TIME, Serbia could make a legitimate claim, based on history, to sovereignty over the independence-minded province of Kosovo. But asserting such a claim now, in the face of further emerging evidence of its crimes against Kosovo, seems almost ludicrous. As a picture unfolds of mass graves, burned houses, looted shops and smashed mosques, it is hard to imagine that anyone could seriously propose returning Kosovo against its will to the control of a government that sought systematically to destroy it.

For 11 weeks of NATO bombing, we learned of Serb atrocities second-hand from the accounts of deported ethnic Albanians. Now, as NATO forces move into the shattered province and Yugoslav troops retreat, we can see that those accounts, if anything, understated the extent of Slobodan Milosevic's terror.

Seven Washington Post reporters, reporting from across Kosovo in yesterday's editions, provided evidence that executions of civilians "were carried out in community after community across a wide swath of the province." Each story is distinct in its horror, but each points to the same conclusion: Serbian forces carried out a deliberate war against civilians. And they continue their atrocities even in retreat: shooting a father in front of his 13-year-old daughter two days ago, torching villages and machine-gunning civilians to death yesterday.

This picture of a systematic campaign is confirmed by a newly released survey conducted by Physicians for Human Rights. Instead of collecting accounts from known victims, PHR questioned 1,209 randomly selected deportees. The poll revealed that, contrary to Belgrade propaganda and some assertions here in Washington, the Kosovars did not leave their homes because of NATO bombing or Kosovo Liberation Army threats. They left because of Serb terror. One-third were directly rousted from their homes by Serb police or soldiers. Most of the rest left because of Serb bombing, beatings, killings or less direct threats. "We found that violence was thorough and pervasive," said PHR executive director Leonard Rubenstein. "It was inflicted by Serb forces family by family."

Another organization, Human Rights Watch, came to a similar conclusion based on deportee interviews. Kenneth Roth, that group's director, said yesterday that the exodus of ethnic Albanians was the result of a highly organized, efficient, complex Serbian operation. The pattern was the same everywhere, he said: "demonstration killings" to stampede villagers into the nearest town; the confiscation of all identity documents; systematic looting of every transportable item of any value whatever; and the herding of displaced people from towns to the border and out.

Nor did the Serbs spare the sick or wounded. Ethnic Albanian patients were booted from hospitals. If they were too sick to walk, they were pushed out in wheelbarrows. Many -- we still do not know how many -- died. It will be many years, generations perhaps, before anyone in Belgrade can in good conscience speak of a Serbian "right" to Kosovo.