Travels With The Kla

Two weeks ago I joined two other journalists on what, so far, has been a 90-mile-long trek through the Kosovo war zone. Escorted by a unit of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), we entered the province from Macedonia and worked our way north, moving mostly at night to avoid Serb patrols. Along the way, we watched the NATO bombing campaign in all its fury and saw thousands of displaced Kosovars hiding in the rugged hills. In the Sharr Mountains we found a forest full of ethnic Albanians living in tents made of plastic sheeting. Well-hidden scattered hollows, these tented villages housed an estimated 15,000 people--just a fraction of the 500,000 refugees NATO says are still on the run.

For most of the first week we lived in constant fear of the Yugoslav Army. Crossing paved roads, where we were most exposed, was terrifying. First, our escorts would lead us to the edge of the road. Then two guerrillas would cover the road with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs, and the others would hold us by the backs of our shirts until the coast was clear. Then they gave us a shove and we ran, one at a time, to cover. Occasionally we saw Serb patrols at a distance and they would fire off a few rounds. But the bombing campaign deterred them from doing much more.

NATO jets were in the air day and night--at the peak of the bombing, hardly five minutes went by without the drone of planes overhead. One night in south-central Kosovo we watched NATO planes destroy a radar site. Their bombs and missiles lit up the night sky for miles around. Sometimes we were so close to the airstrikes that we could feel the concussion of the bomb explosions, but no one seemed to mind. "Hets hets, NATO!"' the guerrillas would shout. "'Go, NATO, go!"

Just after we reached the headquarters of the KLA's Nerodime Zone in south-central Kosovo, a group of 800 women, children and old men managed to escape from the beleaguered KLA stronghold of Drenica. Filing into a remote highland village, the new arrivals carried 86 wounded people on homemade stretchers. The victims were taken to a makeshift field hospital in a farmhouse. The operating room, in an upstairs bedroom, used spatulas and kitchen ladles bent up to make surgical clamps, and a huge stage light scavenged from a Pristina playhouse.

Almost everyone we saw was painfully thin. In guerrilla-controlled areas, many of the refugees were fed at KLA soup kitchens that served up two meager meals a day--usually thin soup and bread. Most of the food was gathered by daring foragers who risked Serb patrols to find food stashed in the deserted villages. Many of them were young boys who were sent out on the hope that if they were caught, they were too young to be executed.

Soon Serb forces will have gone, and the KLA will have to confront KFOR instead. "Independence is our final goal," said a zone commander, Shukri Buja. "How can people who have suffered like this accept anything less?" Many of the fighters seemed confident they would become the new army of an independent Kosovo, which NATO opposes. And we didn't meet anyone who would even consider turning in his gun.