Hundreds of fleeing Serbian civilians turned the black roads of Kosovo into ribbons of despair today, packing their belongings into cars and trucks and onto tractors and joining the intensified withdrawal of heavily armored Yugoslav forces from the province.
Departing Serbian police took out their bitterness over the outcome of the war by setting fire to dozens of ethnic Albanian homes in a final spasm of a policy that has turned hundreds of Kosovo neighborhoods into tracts of scorched houses. By sunset, the horizon was filled with plumes of smoke, creating a torchlight setting for the flight of Serbs.
Yugoslav forces tried to maintain a brave front. Soldiers flashed the three-fingered Serbian nationalist salute at television crews freshly arrived from Belgrade. On a bright and steamy midday, three pairs of Yugoslav MiG-21 jets buzzed the western town of Prizren, near the scene of the most intense NATO bombing.
But authorities could not hide the fact that Serbian civilians in Kosovo were voting with their suitcases. Many Serbian residents are angrily opposed to the peace settlement, which permits NATO and U.N. troops to occupy the territory and safeguard the return of ethnic Albanian refugees. The Serbs fear reprisals from their ethnic Albanian neighbors and the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) for the terror, deportation, looting, robbery and killing of ethnic Albanians that marked the war, especially in the first weeks.
Scenes today were reminiscent of the flight of Albanians that began almost three months ago. Serbs crowded onto red tractors with attached flatbed trailers similar to those used in the ethnic Albanian exodus. As with the Albanians, piles of blankets, sheets, bottled water and wide-eyed children with their favorite dolls filled the back seats of cars.
However, there were differences. The Serbs had the luxury of taking televisions and appliances with them, and they were not shaken down by police. And these new refugees were fleeing not immediate terror and threats, but fear of the future.
"The army was pulling out of our village," said a farmer from the Suva Reka area, the site of numerous clashes between rebels and police during the past 18 months. "A soldier came to us and said, `I advise you to leave.' It was not an order; he simply said no one would guarantee our safety."
The farmer, his black-draped wife and his three children were stuck on the highway leading north from Pristina. Their old compact Fiat had broken down, and they were asking passing motorists to tow them.
"Once we cross the border into Serbia, I will junk this," the farmer said of his car. "We are never coming back here."
Many of the civilian cars fleeing north bore license plates from Prizren and Djakovica, both in western Kosovo. If the KLA reenters the province in force, these towns will be along the route. There were few cars here with markings from Pec, a battered and bombed northwestern town, but there were reports that Serbs from that region were fleeing over the mountains into the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.
One family that left Djakovica this morning had piled an oven, a refrigerator, family pictures, clothes and linens onto a flatbed trailer. "We lived through all the bombing because we were told no one would give up Kosovo. The foreigners are coming, and so will the KLA. Is this not giving up Kosovo?" asked Vesna Vorgucic, a schoolteacher. She and her two children and farmer husband had left of their own accord.
A mechanic from Luzavica, a village near Pristina, said that Kosovo's occupation by a NATO-led force is only the latest in a series of calamities for the province, but enough to drive him out. He said he was exhausted by years of rivalry between ethnic Albanians and Serbs that climaxed in hostilities last year and gave rise to the NATO bombing battles this year.
"We've had enough. Do you think these two peoples can live together?" he said, sweeping his hand across the valley toward Bajcina, a village where at least five houses were smoldering.
He was unimpressed by the pending arrival of Russian troops, who are regarded as Slavic kin with Serbian interests at heart. "Have you been to Russia? They are in plenty of trouble themselves. They can't compete with the United States and Europe in this program. They come. All right, but I'm leaving," he said.
At nightfall, about 2,000 refugees from Suva Reka gathered to sleep at a stadium in Pristina. Above them in the deserted hillside neighborhood of Dragodan, automatic rifle shots rang out, as they have for two days.
Kosovo officials went to the stadium to urge the Serbs to return home or at least stay in Pristina, rather than abandon Kosovo. "We haven't fought just to pack up and leave," said Zoran Andjelkovic, the head of the provincial government.
Andjelkovic's words failed to move an old man who was clutching a black-framed photo of his son, a soldier killed in the war. "I lost everything here. I am not coming back," he said.
The refugee outflow contributed to clogging Kosovo's roads, where heavy trucks and trailers ferried scores of antiaircraft weapons. Given NATO's claims of "degrading" Yugoslav defenses, it was an impressive parade of SA-2 missile launchers, six-packs of the missiles on trucks, radar equipment, communications vans, double and single barrel antiaircraft guns and hoists to mount the missiles. Near Kosovska Mitrovica, a convoy of about 80 vehicles gathered, while on the road from Pristina, the parade began with the exit of a 60-vehicle convoy.
Of the dozens of launchers seen today, only one had the telltale white-powder markings that suggested it had been used.
Soldiers left by truck or bus, or in cars apparently stolen from Albanians. As the end of NATO airstrikes was perceived as permanent, more and more soldiers and police sat out in the open. Paramilitary patrols in mix-and-match green outfits kept watch on main roads.
The best road from Kosovo to Serbia proper passes from Pristina to Merdare, and it carried most of the military and refugee traffic today. North of Pristina, traveling the road is tedious because NATO jets have destroyed two bridges, including one at Luzane, where a civilian bus was crossing as the bomb hit. Local police said 34 passengers were killed, and the charred remains of the bus are still there, half on the bridge, half beside a stream below.
Merdare is a kind of finish line at the end of a potholed obstacle course bordered by newly burned homes, charred remains of previously trashed houses, looted stores and checkpoints.
Once over the line, refugees and soldiers who peer at their rearview mirrors can see the old Serbian nationalist banner marking the entrance to the province. It reads: "There's No Other Road But the Road To Kosovo."
CAPTION: Serbian civilians from northwestern Kosovo and some Montenegrins wait in traffic as they try to flee Kosovo for the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro before NATO-led troops arrive.
CAPTION: Tractors loaded with Serbian residents of Kosovo and their belongings head north from Pristina, partly out of fear of reprisals from ethnic Albanians.