Even before the bombs stop falling and the first NATO troops arrive, some ethnic Albanians are starting to return home.
They are survivors, men and women who through grit and luck -- and occasionally a twist of fate -- endured weeks of hiding inside Kosovo and are now trickling back into the towns and cities they had fled in terror.
They long for the certainty that the days of smashing, looting and bullets are over for good. "Albanians are happy that the war is finished and happy about the peace agreement," said Shukri Rexhepi, a teacher who limps on a shriveled right leg, the result of a birth defect that made his escape from Serbian police especially arduous.
When the first peacekeepers arrive, Rexhepi plans to be at home with his belongings, minus a stolen television set, video recorder and other appliances. He has resumed his part-time business in spare auto parts, and someday, he says, he will be able to buy a car to replace the one that ran out of gas as he and his family tried to flee the threat of mayhem by heavily armed police.
Rexhepi is one of many thousands of ethnic Albanians who spent much of the past 2 1/2 months wandering from place to place in Kosovo after being driven from their homes by Yugoslav troops and Serbian police and paramilitary units. They ducked bullets, evaded abusive and extortionist militia gangs gangs, hid in the woods and evaded the NATO airstrikes.
In recent weeks, Rexhepi and hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of other ethnic Albanians have been permitted by Serbian police, quietly and selectively, to return to their homes. It is impossible to generalize for all of Kosovo, but here in the eastern town of Podujevo, which had a prewar population of 130,000, ethnic Albanian residents continue to trickle in, some arriving as recently as Tuesday. They inhabit several square blocks of the city, while other neighborhoods have been placed off limits. It does not appear, however, that police have permitted ethnic Albanians to reinhabit outlying villages, where support for Kosovo's secessionist guerrillas often was strongest.
The odyssey of ethnic Albanians who stayed behind is one of the contradictions of the war. Although more than 800,000 fled to Albania and Macedonia after the war began on March 24, the fact that as many as 500,000 are still inside Kosovo challenges the notion that the Serb-led Belgrade government intended to get rid of them all.
Troops and police certainly had time to expel Rexhepi and the others who remained behind. Most of the time, internally displaced people holed up in previously vacated villages that were under police and army control.
Their survival also calls into question Belgrade's contention that soldiers and police were incapable of protecting the fearful ethnic Albanian population. Rexhepi and the other internally displaced people are alive now in part because the intimidation and killing that was rampant here during the early weeks of the war appear to have been absent for the past several weeks -- as if ended by higher order.
Rexhepi's journey began on March 24, the night that NATO bombs began to fall on Yugoslavia. Police rousted him, his wife, three children and mother from their home. "We left under flying bullets," he said.
Their saga began with a drive to Balovac, where their car ran out of gas and where they stayed for four days until army shelling drove them out. They walked to Saikovac -- spending a few nights and dodging more bullets; then to Surdova, where they spent 10 days and were shot at again. From there they went to Kolic for two days, then to Pristina, the Kosovo capital. There, police ordered them back to Podujevo, then to Saikovac, where they stayed for more than a month. All the time, they lived in abandoned houses. "We were always nervous," he said.
Finally, police told them their street in Podujevo could be reinhabited. They returned and have been here ever since.
Today, his customers were a pair of Serbian policemen. He knew them, and they were friendly. Rexhepi believes that Serbs -- who made up only 10 percent of Kosovo's prewar population of 1.8 million -- should stay in Kosovo "except for the ones with blood on their hands." He feels this way even though a Serbian neighbor had rifled his home, leaving only books and clothing. "I heard this man said it was all right to take these things because I was never coming back," Rexhepi said. "Well, here I am."
Down the street, a merchant returned to his house five weeks ago after an odyssey similar to Rexhepi's. He declined to give his name, in part because before the war he was a translator for human rights observers with the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Some Serbs accuse OSCE of exaggerating Serbian abuse of ethnic Albanians.
The merchant and an extended family of more than 20 had wandered the countryside on a flatbed trailer pulled by a tractor. Now they are hosting another family of eight whose house is in the village of Obrance, which police have declared off limits. "Maybe without NATO, it would take a long time for people to go back to places like Obrance," he said. "For us, it means that no one will push us from our home."
Nearby, a family of seven -- a man, his wife, two other women and their three children, one of them a 6-month-old infant -- rested after walking several miles into Podujevo from the countryside. The husbands of the young mothers were still "in the mountains," the women said. Sometimes this is code for membership in the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army; sometimes it just means they are in hiding in fear.
Either way, the imminent arrival of NATO troops means a family reunion -- if the men are alive. "We haven't heard from them for 12 days," said one of the mothers. "They cannot come out until the Serbs are gone. That's how we feel."
CAPTION: Members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the USS Kearsarge await orders to go ashore and take part in the multinational peacekeeping force that will enter Kosovo. They were expected to land in Greece today.