Behind A Band Of Rebels

The newest soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army arrived by ferry in the Albanian port of Durres late last week. Hauling backpacks and duffel bags, 150 Kosovar recruits from Germany marched down the gangplank of the ship Adriatica and stood proudly at attention in a stiff sea breeze. One who now calls himself "Leon," a ponytailed young man wearing a gold loop in his left ear, hitched up his fatigues and cocked an imaginary rifle. Leon had quit his job as a cook in Berlin a week earlier, he said, to fight the same Serb "criminals" he said he had battled in Bosnia in the early 1990s. "They are good only for fighting women and children," he sneered. Standing nearby, Murat Berisha, 40, a Berlin soccer coach, said that his wife and three young sons had encouraged him to volunteer. "They are proud that I am prepared to die to liberate my country," he said. That may happen all too soon. The same day that Berisha and his comrades arrived in Durres, another KLA unit of raw recruits from Germany was thrown across the Albania border at the Yugoslav Army. Fifty were killed, said a KLA commander.

In the view of nearly everyone on the ground along the Albania-Kosovo border, the KLA has been decimated by the Serb onslaught. Serb forces have driven out the ethnic Albanians who supported the guerrillas, destroyed food stocks, pushed the fighters back into small pockets of resistance and blocked the guerrillas' supply routes, say KLA sources. "In most of Kosovo the ethnic cleansing is complete," said one KLA commander called Llirak , reached by satellite phone in the eastern region of Kosovo. "We are fighting now for our survival."

Has anyone let NATO know? Last week Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Henry Shelton told a Senate committee that alliance airstrikes are so badly mauling Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces in Kosovo that the KLA "is starting to have the wherewithal to move against him and to basically start pushing him out." NATO sources say that, with Serb armor hunkered down to avoid airstrikes, the guerrillas have begun mounting hit-and-run raids. The KLA captured a Yugoslav Army lieutenant, smuggled him across the border and turned him over to the U.S. Army in the Albanian capital late last week. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea called the guerrilla group "a phoenix which rises from the ashes."

That may take a very long time--too long, perhaps, for the Kosovars. But the KLA's survival in the face of the Serb attack shows how far it has already come. Founded in the central Drenica region of Kosovo in the early 1990s by extended families that had traditionally opposed Serb rule, the KLA transmuted spectacularly last year from a ragtag band of 200 into a force estimated at 10,000 to 12,000 regular troops and some 25,000 irregulars. Led by field commanders who served with the old Yugoslav or Bosnian Army, the KLA quickly developed an effective command-and-control structure, though it still relies mainly on light arms. Money comes to the KLA from a 3 percent voluntary tax paid by many of the half-million Kosovars living abroad, as well as contributions from wealthy Albanian businessmen. The rebels are also suspected of smuggling heroin through Albania to the rest of Europe and of receiving money from Islamic radicals; the KLA leadership denies both charges. Lately the KLA has made great progress toward shedding its unsavory image, partly by putting forward a consolidated political front. At failed peace talks in France this winter, provisional Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, 29, the KLA's de facto chief, struck up a friendship with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's spokesman, Jamie Rubin. The two talk often.

The insurgents' hopes now rest partly on the influx of new KLA troops into Kosovo. Some 5,000 Kosovar recruits have poured into Albania since late March. Most arrive by boat from the Italian port of Bari. An additional 15,000 exiles are expected to arrive shortly, joining 10,000 volunteers recruited from among the refugees. The soldiers, including many former conscripts in the Yugoslav Army, are bused to six camps on Albania's border with Kosovo. Recruits with military experience are given two weeks' training, the rest a month. Last week a NEWSWEEK reporter who entered a camp saw stockpiles of new weaponry and units running in the hills and learning to fire cannons, artillery and AK-47s. "The training is fast and hard," said a recruit from Germany named Besim, resting beside his white military tent. "I'm always tired. I don't know when I'll be ready."

When he is, the Serbs will be waiting for him. For the past three weeks the Yugoslav force has been laying mines and entrenching heavy weapons along Kosovo's border with Albania. The Serbs have rained shells down on the Albanian frontier, trying to target KLA encampments. KLA sources say 1,000 fighters infiltrated about five miles into Kosovo from Tropoje last week but couldn't advance further against Serb fire.

KLA commanders reached by satellite phone describe a wasteland of burned villages, wandering cattle and malnourished people. They said Serb police have completely surrounded a KLA zone around central Kosovo, trapping the guerrillas in the hills along with 40,000 civilians. "Our food supplies are catastrophically low," says a KLA spokesman there. "At any moment there is a danger of people dying from hunger." Around the village of Llausha in Drenica, KLA sources say scouts have spotted at least 1,000 corpses scattered in the fields. In the Llap military zone, mountainous terrain near the Serbian border, KLA commander Llirak estimated that 250,000 civilians were camping alongside KLA fighters in the forests.

The KLA clearly is eager to cooperate with NATO. Guerrilla commanders regularly call NATO officials by satellite phone to identify targets, say KLA sources. But NATO officials say they don't act on the tips because "that would make [the KLA] a partner." NATO policy calls for disarming the KLA once a multinational peacekeeping force is able to enter Kosovo; officials now doubt the guerrillas will ever agree.

The KLA's best asset for now is its continuing high morale. Last week in Durres 50 new recruits from Germany eagerly boarded a bus bound for a camp nine hours north. Albanian children stood outside the bus, flashing the V for victory sign and chanting "UCK! UCK!" the Albanian acronym for the resistance. Hid Sinanaj, a petite 19-year-old woman wearing camouflage fatigues, tucked her black hair beneath a black beret and waved back at the children. A college student in Munich, Sinanaj has a brother and sister fighting with the KLA inside Kosovo, and rushed to sign up the moment she heard about the Serb onslaught. "They know I'm coming," she said, "they are looking forward to the day when I reach them." Given the brutal might of the Serb army, Sinanaj will be lucky to get that far.