Over the past 2 1/2 months, Fehmi Thaqi has been imprisoned, beaten, practically starved to death and threatened with execution by Serb-led security forces. Today was the day that the 40-year-old ethnic Albanian farmer thought he was going home.
Instead, he watched helplessly from the safety of a NATO military outpost as a cloud of smoke enveloped Bariljevo, his Kosovo village. He knew from friends that his wife and four children were there, and he desperately wanted to join them. But he is afraid to go back to the village as long as Yugoslav soldiers are there, and he has been told by British troops that they have no immediate plans to evict them.
"It's very frustrating, but there is not a lot we can do about it," said Capt. Tom Holloway of the King's Royal Hussars, as he watched the smoke rise above Bariljevo. "We are obliged to stick to the terms of the military technical agreement" negotiated between NATO and Yugoslav army generals last week.
Holloway was referring to the pact's provision that retreating Yugoslav forces are not required to evacuate an area designated Zone 3 -- comprising most of northern Kosovo and including Bariljevo -- until midnight Sunday.
But the same agreement also obliges Belgrade government forces to cease "any hostile or provocative acts of any type." And it authorizes NATO peacekeepers "to take all necessary action to establish and maintain a secure environment for all citizens."
Earlier this week, the British commander of the estimated 14,000 NATO troops in Kosovo acknowledged bluntly that, despite the pact, there is no guarantee of protection. "With the forces I have at my disposal, I cannot be everywhere all of the time," Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson told reporters. "I have to accept that there are going to be things going on that I would prefer not to be going on."
While NATO troops generally have been efficient in asserting control over Kosovo in the seven days since the war ended and the Yugoslav army began its retreat, there have been troubling exceptions. There have been numerous reports from a variety of places in Kosovo of withdrawing troops setting fire to ethnic Albanian homes, looting and killing.
One of the biggest current problems is how to protect the ethnic Albanian population in Zone 3, where Yugoslav troops and Serbian special police forces still have four days to terrorize residents. Ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing from Zone 3 to Pristina, the Kosovo capital, have spoken of renewed shelling of the city of Podujevo by Yugoslav army units, as well as house burnings and looting. While the civilian exodus from the region is nowhere near the wartime scale, the fact that it is happening at all illustrates the messy reality of peacemaking.
NATO reported today that government security forces had largely completed their withdrawal from Zone 1, which includes the area immediately around Pristina as well as an arc of territory along Kosovo's southern border running from the towns of Pec and Prizren in the west and south to Gniljane in the east. But Serbian gunmen had time to cause some mayhem before they left. In one incident Tuesday afternoon, a member of a paramilitary group sprayed a crowd of Albanians with machine-gun fire, killing four young men, according to witnesses.
Driven out of Podujevo and nearby villages by army shelling, ethnic Albanian refugees retreated today over the hills north of Pristina via the village of Kolic. Kolic was the site of a major civilian massacre in April, shortly after NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia began, when Serbian police units shot dead groups of Kosovo Albanians as they fled along a dirt road. Separatist Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas later buried the dead in mass graves containing up to 30 bodies. In Kolic alone, at least 70 people are believed to have been killed.
The road through Kolic that the refugees from Podujevo took today is a scene of utter devastation. It is lined with burned cars, tractors and horse-drawn carts that belonged to the refugees who fled the region in April. Refugees' belongings still lie in little heaps along the side of the road.
"We wanted to return to our homes [today], but the Serbs prevented us," said Jakub Stvarqa, 24, as he drove a tractor pulling a cart filled with refugees along the Kolic-Pristina road. "They were using heavy artillery."
Another refugee, Bejta Kapiti, said the shelling of Podujevo began around 1 p.m. Tuesday and subsided around 4 p.m., when NATO tanks appeared in the vicinity. The shelling was accompanied by burning and looting. Hundreds of inhabitants fled the area.
Back on the main road between Pristina and Podujevo, British soldiers expressed eagerness to stop the house-burnings and shellings but said they were unable to act because of the terms of the military agreement. "It's frustrating watching this," said a sergeant-major from Newcastle, in northern England. "We wanted to go in yesterday, but our commanders told us no. All this is being decided way above our heads."
The hussars, who are deployed north of Pristina, have sent reconnaissance vehicles into the area but want to avoid a confrontation with the retreating Yugoslavs and are trying to resolve the problem through negotiation. They have promised to protect Yugoslav troops from revenge attacks by the KLA guerrillas, who control the hills above Podujevo, providing the government forces stop harassing the local population.
This afternoon, British Maj. Julian Moir took a Yugoslav army colonel to see five burning houses in Bariljevo that had been set ablaze within the previous few hours. Most of them were ethnic Albanian-owned houses that had been occupied by the army and were being burned in a final act of spite. The Yugoslav officer, Col. Bratislav Radovic, berated his men and threatened them with up to two months in jail for "destruction of property."
"This is the work of reservists who want to let off steam," he said, shaking hands with the British officer.
This evening, as the sun went down, Fehmi Thaqi and his friends from Bariljevo were still sitting by the side of the road, watching from a distance as their village continued to burn.
CAPTION: Serb-led forces begin their pullout from Zebane. In the next village, Bariljevo, forces due to withdraw by Sunday were burning ethnic Albanian homes.