The Serbs packed up and left this village in northern Kosovo Saturday evening, and this morning ethnic Albanians came with one thing on their minds -- revenge.
They went through the community's neat concrete and brick homes, loading stoves on wheelbarrows, sofas on horse-drawn wagons and roof tiles and window panes on tractor carts. And as they finished stripping each house, they set it ablaze. Finally, they struck out across a field of knee-high corn to their own ransacked and charred village just across the highway.
"We've been waiting for this more than 100 years," shouted Raif Jashari, 47, as he joined the mob of newly returned ethnic Albanian refugees who descended on this abandoned Serbian town of about 120 homes. They said they were here to reclaim possessions their Serbian neighbors looted from their homes during the Belgrade government's 2 1/2-month campaign to purge Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian majority.
"The Serbs took everything we had sweated to earn," said Mevlude Jashari, 28, who was piling blankets, carpets and chandelier segments into a teetering wheelbarrow. "This is bad. We didn't want the Serbian houses to be torched. But after all this, we wanted the Serbs to feel the same thing we felt when they burned our homes."
It started Saturday afternoon, just before sunset, when a long line of cars, tractor carts and horse-drawn wagons -- all bulging with household goods -- pulled out of Grace and onto the main highway north toward Serbia proper. Grace's citizens were joining tens of thousands of other Serbs who have fled Kosovo in the nine days since government forces started withdrawing from the Serbian province and NATO peacekeepers began arriving. By nightfall, there wasn't a Serb left in the village, according to the ethnic Albanians who live in the town on the other side of the highway, Stanovci i Vlet. "They couldn't even look us in the eye as they passed," said Shaban Kastrati, 44, an auto mechanic who, like many of his neighbors, spent most of the weeks since late March hiding from Serbian paramilitary forces who gave them one day to vacate their homes. "Everyone in our village was waiting at the road, watching them leave so we could go torch their houses."
Minutes after the last Serbian family pulled out, Kastrati and dozens of other people who had returned to the village in the past two days raced across the highway and into Grace's narrow dirt lanes.
"I came here last night at about 7:30, when the last Serb left," said Samedin Dushi, 27. "I went inside the village and quickly went house to house until I found the house with my things in it. It was easy to recognize the house. They had even taken the doors to our houses and put them on theirs."
This morning, Grace appeared to be in the midst of a gruesome garage sale as the revenge fever spread. Clothing, furniture, school notebooks and potted plants were heaped in dozens of front yards. Houses were engulfed in crackling flames and belching black smoke. Squealing pigs and squawking hens ran through well-tended vegetable gardens to escape the fires.
Men pushing wheelbarrows gasped in the smoky pall, as they headed home with their reclaimed goods -- or their spoils. The rutted dirt road leading to the highway was jammed with tractor-towed carts and skittish horses pulling wooden wagons as the ethnic Albanians jockeyed to load stacks of lumber, bookshelves and other bulky items. Two men wrestled a large silver-colored fuel tank from a small brick outbuilding.
Nazmie Dushi, 28 and seven months pregnant, stood next to a wheelbarrow loaded with a pine cradle that she said her husband had bought before they were evicted from their home by Serbian police in March. She said they reclaimed it today from the house of a man who once worked with her husband.
"I can't describe the feeling when they torched our houses," said Dushi, watching a house a few dozen yards away crumple from the heat of a roaring orange blaze. "We don't have our houses now, but at least we have our things -- and our lives."
Many families looted more than their own stolen possessions, but Raif Jashari would not cross that line: "I could not eat from their plates," he sneered.
By midafternoon, a French NATO patrol pulled into Grace and attempted to stop the pillage. One overloaded wagon overturned as its driver attempted a getaway in advance of the troops, spilling construction materials and furniture. After righting the cart, a French soldier snapped, "Take everything and get out!"
CAPTION: As smoke billows from Serbian-owned houses in Grace, ethnic Albanians leave for home, their wagons loaded with property they had reclaimed -- or looted.