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Friday, May 7, 1999 Published at 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK

World: Europe

Kosovo's 'empty villages'

Many might want to return to Kosovo if they feel safe

A picture of a Kosovo devoid of life and empty has been painted by one of the few journalists in the Serbian province.

Steve Herlinger: "Only the elderly are still in Kosovo."
"The most impressive thing is how empty it can seem," said Steve Herlinger, special correspondent for the New York Times in the provincial capital, Pristina.

"There are whole villages without any population at all, just wandering cattle, dead animals and packs of wild dogs," he told the BBC World Service.

Fergul Keane: "For many refugees as one journey ends another begins"
"The cities are kind of echoing," he continued. "It is a very bizarre feeling."

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR), estimates that over 700,000 ethnic Albanians have fled Kosovo since the beginning of Nato's air strikes against Yugoslavia.

Together with those who left before the strikes to work or study abroad or escape Serbia's repressive rule, there are now around one million Kosovo Albanians outside the province.

Trickle of humanity

Kosovo: Special Report
Radical Serbs, said Mr Herlinger, have achieved their goal of breaking Albanian power in the province.

But he added that he did not think the Serb Government would immediately resettle the area with Serbs.

But by no means all ethnic Albanians have left the city. Even as people flee Pristina, some are coming back since the city has not been heavily bombed for a month.

"To some people it feels safer than the countryside, so people are trickling back," said Mr Herlinger,

During the day, life can seem almost normal, if you ignore the empty Albanian quarters and the bomb damage, according to the New York Times correspondent.

Seeking protection

[ image: Homes destroyed by Serbs]
Homes destroyed by Serbs
But not many young people are around. "Most of the Albanians are older, or pensioners, or too poor to go," said Mr Herlinger.

The conflict has not been able to destroy all cross-ethnic relations. Mr Herlinger spoke of ethnic Albanians staying behind because "they have Serb friends who are protecting them."

He is certain that many refugees would want to come back to the province if they felt safe.

But for the moment they cannot feel protected. Serb army and special police are still in the province and they cannot easily be driven out by Nato, according to Mr Herlinger.

"Part of the problem is finding them," he said. "They are quite dispersed. You do not see long columns of tanks. People are travelling in civilian vehicles."

The Yugoslav army is in hiding, he argued. "You have to be on the ground with them to see them easily."

And increasingly it becomes clear, he adds, "that Nato does not want to be on the ground with them."

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