In the wake of the Gracko killings, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has appealed to the Albanians of Kosovo to set aside their enmities. "We fought this conflict," Mr. Blair said in the provincial capital Pristina last Friday, "because we believe in justice, because we believed it was wrong to have ethnic cleansing and racial genocide here in Europe towards the end of the 20th century, and we didn't fight it to have another ethnic minority [the Kosovan Serb minority] repressed."

These are good-hearted, high-minded, decent words, the words of a man who believes he has fought and won a just war, and for whom "justice" includes the idea of reconciliation. But they also indicate a failure of imagination. What happened to the Albanians in Kosovo was an atrocity whose dark effect on the spirit may lie beyond the power of decent men such as Mr. Blair to wish away. What happened may be, quite simply, unforgivable.

Tragically, this is not the first such imaginative failure. In the conflict's early days, many Kosovar Albanians also failed to grasp the scale of the horror that was coming their way. In many villages, the men decided to flee, convinced that Milosevic's army was intent on massacring them. They vanished into the woods, over the mountains, out of the army's murderous reach.

But they made one miscalculation: they left their families behind, unable to believe that their wives and children and infirm grandparents would be at risk from the advancing soldiers. The human capacity for the atrocious proved greater than these other human beings were able to foresee.

Now let us imagine the refugees' terrible return at the conflict's end. Nervously, hoping for joy, they near their village. But before they get there they understand that the unimaginable has occurred.

The men of this village must now face a truth in which profound shame and humiliation mingle with great grief. They are alive because they ran away, but the loved ones whom they left behind have been murdered in their stead. The bodies which they now carry in farmyard carts to the burial ground speak accusations through their shrouds.

The village's survivors tell the returned refugees the story of the massacre. They tell them how some of the Serbs in the village put on Serbian army uniforms and used their local knowledge to help the killers flush out the terrified Albanians from their bolt-holes. No, they said, don't bother to search that house, it has no cellar. Ah, but this house, there's cellar under that rug, they'll be hiding in there.

These Kosovan Serbs have fled now. But Milosevic doesn't want them in Serbia, where they are the living proof of his defeat. And Mr Blair, too, wants them to go home and be protected by K-FOR. They are reluctant to return, fearing vengeance. And guess what? They're right. They're right and Tony Blair, with his vision of a new Kosovo -- "a symbol of how the Balkans should be" -- is wrong.

I supported the NATO operation in Kosovo, finding the human rights evidence in favor of intervention to be powerful and convincing. Many writers, intellectuals, artists and left-leaning bien-pensants thought otherwise. One of their arguments was, if Kosovo, then why not Kurdistan? Why not Rwanda or East Timor? Oddly, this kind of rhetoric actually makes the opposite point to the one it thinks it's making. For if it would have been right to intervene in these cases, and the West was wrong not to, then surely it was also right to defend the Kosovans, and the West's previous failures only serve to emphasize that this time, at least, they -- "we" -- got it right.

The anti-intervention camp's major allegation was and is that NATO's action in fact precipitated the violence it was intended to prevent; that, so to speak, the massacres were Madeleine Albright's fault. This seems to me both morally reprehensible -- because it exculpates the actual killers -- and demonstrably wrong.

Set aside all emotion and look at the cold logistics of Milosevic's massacre. It quickly becomes apparent that the atrocity had been carefully planned. Now, one does not make detailed plans to wipe out thousands of people just in case a speedy response to a Western attack should be needed. One plans a massacre because one intends to carry out a massacre.

True, the speed and enormity of the Serb attack took the NATO forces by surprise (another failure of imagination). That doesn't make it right to blame NATO. Murderers are guilty of the murders they commit, rapists of their rapes.

But if "we" were right to go in, and the war was indeed fought for idealistic motives, the idealism of the present policy looks increasingly starry-eyed. The reality, as reported by experienced foreign correspondents who have returned from Kosovo to say that they have never seen anything like it, is that there are few Serbs left in Kosovo, and it is probably impossible to protect them.

The old, multicultural Sarajevo was destroyed by the Bosnia war. The old Kosovo is gone too, very probably for good. Mr. Blair's ideal Kosovo is a dream. He and his colleagues should now support the construction of the free, ethnically Albanian entity which seems like a historical inevitability.

The aftermath of a war is no time for dreaming.

Salman Rushdie is a British novelist and essayist.

(C) 1999, New York Times Syndicate