Kosovo's ethnic Albanians began awakening today from their long nightmare.
For many, it was cause for a cathartic spasm of joy. For others, it was a reason to venture home. For the hunted young men of Kosovo, it was a chance, at last, to come out of hiding. The police and soldiers were finally gone.
Dozens of husky young men jammed the Corza Cafe in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, alternating between laughter and tears as they wrapped their arms around friends they had fretted over for weeks, learning only today that they all had been hiding in apartments and houses a few streets from each other.
Others returned to front porches and balconies on which they had not dared appear since late March, when Serbian police and Serb-led Yugoslav troops began rounding up men of military age as part of a scorched-earth offensive against separatist ethnic Albanian guerrillas here.
"It is as though we have been reborn," said Petrit Garkaxhiu, 21, as he sipped coffee on his first foray to downtown Pristina in 2 1/2 months.
While the arrival of British NATO forces here this weekend brought crowds of children, women and elderly men to the streets of the capital, it wasn't until the city had been all but emptied of Belgrade government security forces and Serbian militiamen that the most vulnerable population emerged from hiding. NATO officials said they expected that all Yugoslav forces would adhere to a high-level military agreement requiring them to withdraw from the city and all of southern Kosovo by midnight tonight.
On street corners, in shops and on sidewalks throughout the capital, the generation of men that had dropped out of sight for weeks embraced and kissed, voices cracking in joyous outbursts of emotion.
"When you looked out on the streets before, the city was empty -- like some horror film," said Naim Hoxha, 48, returning from his first walk to a store since he went into hiding as government troops flooded the city. "Now I see all these people. They were here all along. I was surprised at how many of us there were."
Today was the first day, too, that there were no Yugoslav soldiers or Serbian policemen on the streets of the southern city of Prizren, Kosovo's third-largest, and the relief there was palpable as well.
Ethnic Albanian residents packed their balconies and shouted greetings at their neighbors -- smiling, waving, laughing. A man pushed his baby in a stroller, and other families casually walked the promenade along the banks of the Bistrica River. Children furiously pedaled their bikes. Motorists packed the streets with cars, honking their horns, flashing their lights, waving guerrilla banners and American flags.
Neighbors hugged one another, weeping in relief. How long has it been? they asked each other. Where is so-and-so? Is your family okay?
"Now we have freedom," said Lirije Besimi, a 52-year-old teacher. "The people can live again."
In the towns and villages of southern Kosovo, thousands of displaced ethnic Albanians began returning to their homes only to discover in many cases that their homes had been occupied by other displaced people who have been on the move for months trying to escape marauding police and paramilitary forces.
Some of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians who had fled to neighboring countries began returning as well, despite NATO warnings that unrecovered land mines make such ventures hazardous. Behadin Rexhepi, 43, made it back to the town of Stimlje after six weeks in a refugee camp in Macedonia, finding that his grocery store had been looted and burned nearly to the ground. "I knew that it was damaged, but I didn't think it would be like this," he said, standing outside the charred remains of his business.
The Salihi family fled the village of Petrovo, in the hills above Stimlje, almost 11 months ago, when Yugoslav security forces began shelling ethnic Albanian villages as part of an early, limited campaign against the guerrillas. All this time, they had hid out in the hills and in vacated houses. Today, for the first time in nearly a year, they felt secure enough to drive back to Petrovo.
Living in the Salihi house was Halime Jashari, 71, and her family, all of whom had been driven from their own home. When the Salihi family entered, Jashari gathered up her mattresses and her meager bags of belongings and left the house. Tonight, she was camped out on the street, waiting for a truck to take her home.
Anderson reported from Prizren; staff writer Michael Dobbs in Stimlje contributed to this report.