KOSOVO, Yugoslavia -- Kosovo's ethnic Albanians have begun to return to their ruined villages.
Donkey carts and tractors ply the roads, seeking supplies as winter cold intensifies. But where do the drivers live? Only rubble and graffiti remain where the Yugoslav army swept through last month. Every house looks uninhabitable.
From the midst of one ruin, in the village of Carraluuka, smoke rises. What had appeared to be an abandoned structure bristles with life. Smiling children run up as their parents peek out cautiously. More than 20 people -- from a newborn to couples in their 70s -- are packed into two smoky rooms spray-painted with Serbian graffiti.
They insist on helping a visitor untie her shoelaces and serving her lunch -- cabbage pie cooked on top of a wood-burning stove. Everyone dips hands into the huge pan, though the women and children, by Muslim custom, eat separately.
How old everyone looks! Women who appear to be in their late 30s are just 21. The 50-year-olds look to be 70. Yet they try to mask the effects of war with smiles and warmth.
At a gas station, an attendant peers into the car and says: "Why you look so sad? In a terrible country like this, you have to be happy."
The fighting scattered ethnic Albanians across the Kosovo landscape. Those who could moved in with relatives or camped in barns. Some fled across the border to Albania. Now they are coming home, fixing up a room or two in whatever structures are still standing.
Life continues. Clothing is washed in wheelbarrows and hung on lines strung through the wreckage. At impromptu markets, farmers hawk leftovers from the fall harvest.
Children travel several miles to find open schools, then play with wooden guns in the short afternoons. Their English text has entries for such words as "guns" and "blow up," but not for common words such as "who," "what," "where" and "when."
In the town of Lodja, the school is being rebuilt and turned over, one room at a time, to returning families. Lodja, about 45 miles west of Pristina, is set in a pleasant valley encircled by magnificent mountains. Once it was a charming farm community of century-old buildings housing about 2,000 people. It had a main street of shops and a mosque.
Usually, war leaves mosques with only their minarets blown off. This one has hardly one stone atop another. At least 100 Lodja houses have been destroyed.
Surveying his blasted home, Nesret Ademas, 48, picks from the rubble the only recognizable object, a soup ladle. Tears stream down his face.
Mahmet Morina, 75, and Vehdi Morina, 68, begin working on the school, using their bare hands to break glass out of the shattered windows. Vehdi carefully rescues a photo of Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav leader who for a generation held the simmering populations together.
And there are funerals. In Pec, families mourn six Serbian teen-agers gunned down in a cafe -- perhaps a reprisal for the murder of 31 Albanians earlier in the day. In Velika Krusa, the wailing is for six Muslim students killed along with their professor while returning from Albania.
The religions are different, the rituals and the grief similar. At the Orthodox as at the Muslim funeral, hundreds of relatives and friends come to the open caskets, lift the cloth and kiss their loved ones. In separate processions miles apart, the Serbian youngsters with candles and incense, and the Muslim students with chants go to their graves.
Pub Date: 1/29/99