Snezhana Karadzic has the air of a perfect international civil servant. Calm, efficient and elegant, she sits in the United Nations headquarters in Kosovo and, with no hint of bias, trots out every relevant statistic on relations between Serbs and Albanians since Nato bombed the region six years ago.
But ask about her own experiences and the professional mask comes crashing down. Tears well up as she describes what happened last year, at a time when every expert thought Kosovo was proceeding smoothly.
"I was at home in Obilic with my daughter. She was on her first visit back to Kosovo since 1999. She's a medical student in Nis. It wasn't yet 7.30am and I saw a mob stoning the church and various buildings where Serbs live. We were in panic. We expected the police and Kfor [the international peacekeeping troops] to rescue us but no one turned up. Along with two other women, we managed to barricade the entrance to our block of flats. I thought this was it, I was going to lose my daughter. I told her to go up to the fifth floor. If she heard the barricade breaking down, she should jump out of the window. We had our backs to the doors. The basement was in flames. I felt glass breaking." She recounts it all in a rush.
"Kfor came just in time, but they didn't defend our flats. They told us we had two minutes to leave and be taken to safety. I've never been back there. You know, I was one of the Serbs working to build bridges to Albanians. In two days all the hope, enthusiasm and engagement by people in the minority communities to start a new life in the new Kosovo were burnt up."
It is seven years since Kosovo hit the international headlines when forces under Slobodan Milosevic started a campaign of ethnic cleansing and the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army sought to defend the majority Albanian community in what was then a province of Serbia. Determined not to permit "another Bosnia", Nato intervened in 1999. After 11 weeks of Nato bombing, Milosevic was forced to withdraw his troops and police, some 700,000 Albanian refugees came home and about 100,000 Serbs - roughly half the province's Serb population - fled. The UN was put in charge, pending agreement on whether Kosovo should become independent or revert to Serbian rule.
For most of those two years, Kosovo was an intimate part of my life. The territory is small, and like scores of other reporters I rushed up and down talking to increasingly fearful people on both sides and chronicling the tragedies of burning villages and huge refugee columns. Now I was on my first trip back after five years. Kosovo has sunk into international oblivion again but this summer is expected to be a crucial turning point. Kofi Annan will probably appoint a special UN envoy to start the long-delayed negotiations on Kosovo's "final status". The old issues of Serbian intransigence and Albanian impatience which prompted the last crisis are still in play. Will they come back to haunt us with a new round of violence?
I decided to begin by visiting the underdogs, the Serbs. Reverse ethnic cleansing forced all those who remained in Kosovo in 1999 to retreat to pathetic enclaves. The biggest and safest was the northern part of Kosovo, starting from the town of Mitrovica, where Serbs continue to use Belgrade's currency, the dinar, and little has changed. Elsewhere, the story is grimmer. For the first three years of UN rule Serbs had minimal freedom to travel out of their enclaves except in buses and convoys guarded by foreign troops. They were afraid of being set upon by revenge-seeking neighbours. New licence plates for cars, which made it impossible to tell which town they were from, eased things slightly, at least until last year's political explosion which made Snezhana Karadzic and Serbs in several other towns suddenly homeless.
The trigger was a TV report that Serb youths with a dog had chased three Albanian children into a river, where two drowned and one was missing. Albanians marched on Serb communities. For two days there was a total breakdown of law and order with clashes and shooting between Serbs and Albanians while Kfor and the UN police concentrated on evacuating Serbs as their homes and churches burned. Nineteen people died (the majority Albanians), and 4,500 Serbs were displaced.
One of the worst episodes left the ancient Orthodox convent of Devic in smouldering ruins. In the pre-war period we often visited this simple collection of buildings on the slope of a narrow wooded valley. The mostly elderly women who spent their time praying and farming were then known as "nuns with guns". Now there is a roadblock, guarded by French troops. They escort you up to the convent gate. The buildings are surrounded by coils of barbed wire.
"We can no longer till our fields. Our tractors were stolen last year and the cattle taken or killed," says the mother superior, Sister Anastasia, who has been at Devic since 1968. The nuns' living quarters have been rebuilt but the 15th-century church is a soot-blackened wreck with plastic sheeting in its windows instead of glass. KLA graffiti has been scrawled on the arches.
Sister Anastasia smiles when reminded of the "nuns with guns" tag. "It was exaggerated. All we had was one shotgun and a pistol left by the police. It's terrible that old ladies had to have weapons, but if we had had proper ones last year we would have defended ourselves," she says. In fact, they got the usual Kfor treatment: troops escorted them to safety but did not defend the buildings from the rampaging crowd. The nuns were back at the ruined convent three weeks after their escape.
Karadzic is also determined not to be driven out. She shrugged off the sneers of other Serbs and stayed at her job in the UN's office of community affairs. Her ransacked flat was restored by the government but she is afraid to go back to Obilic, preferring to camp in an old motel in the Serb enclave of Caglavica. "I was encouraged by Albanian colleagues not to give up. They told me my multi-ethnic hopes are the only ones possible. I'm not so enthusiastic today because I see destructive forces on both sides. Both communities are very deeply disturbed. But there is much more work to do."
Her courage is striking, though not unique. She referred me to two other remarkable Serbs, the first to return to the once multi-ethnic town of Klina since 1999. I found them planting onions in the front garden of their bungalow. Leposava Mazic does the shopping, but her husband, Miodrag, 58, has not been out in the four weeks since they came back. With a slight stoop and piercing black eyes, he talks with sensitivity of his Albanian neighbours. "I don't go out yet, because I don't want to seem to be imposing myself. If someone wants to take revenge on us, they can," he says.
Klina's Albanian mayor supported the couple's return, otherwise it would have been suicidal. An Albanian family that was living in their bungalow was persuaded to leave. "They were still rebuilding their own house and I told them to take all the furniture from ours. In 1999 all our Albanian neighbours' houses were burnt. We did our best to protect them, but I felt I had to give him everything," says Mazic. He and his wife got new kitchen equipment and a TV from a foreign charity.
Mazic is unusual for a Kosovo Serb. He speaks passable Albanian and shows great sensitivity to the much worse suffering of the Albanian community. "We're glad to be home but I can't say we're happy. Our neighbours have sons who are still missing. We know how hard it is for them to talk to us. We just don't want them to hate us."
All over Kosovo fear and hatred are still almost as raw as they were in 1998 and 1999, though they are kept under better control nowadays. War memorials to KLA "martyrs" have sprung up in dozens of villages, and the cemeteries are full of civilian dead. "In Holland, if you speak German no Dutchman will talk to you again. Here, it's only six years since the war and we're asked to behave as though nothing has happened," says Sabri Popaj, a 46-year-old farmer who testified against Milosevic at the Hague as the lone survivor of a massacre in which 168 Albanians were killed, including his two teenage children and numerous cousins. He is not against Serbs coming back, he says. He just does not want anything to do with them.
Kosovo's Albanian politicians have consistently argued that independence will ease tensions, since Albanians will no longer fear a reimposition of Serb control. It will also liberate Serbs who have illusions of going back to the past, and take their lead from Belgrade, where politicians urged Serbs to boycott Kosovo's UN-organised elections. "We're working on getting all refugees back and all Serbs are welcome to return," says Kosovo's new prime minister, Bajram Kosumi, whose cheerful, uncombed look conceals his past as a tough student leader who spent 10 years in Serbian gaols. "It's in their interests to have independence. They're in a limbo where they're pressured by Belgrade." To gain time, western governments produced a strategy called Standards Before Status. Under it, Kosovo has to reach various benchmarks of good behaviour before discussions on its future can begin. The main one is respect for minority rights and a policy of encouraging Serbs to return. Last year's riots were a massive setback but they appear to have shocked Kosovans into ensuring no repetition.
The commonest shop sign in Kosovo is the yellow and black neon logo for Western Union. It is both a pun on where Kosovans would love to be politically, and proof of the weakness of Kosovo's economy. Without the cash sent back by Kosovans abroad, many families would be starving or homeless. Money from the diaspora exceeds what foreign governments spend through the UN and the EU to fund the international police and peace-keepers as well as reconstruction.
Naser Aliu is one of the few emigres who returned. With his elder brothers he used to run a sandwich bar near London's Victoria station, but he wanted to be close to his elderly parents and bring his children up in Albanian-language schools. Now he has a sandwich bar in central Pristina. Without the custom from the UN offices nearby, he could not survive. "Local people don't have money to eat out. They'll sit all evening over a macchiato, but that doesn't help us," he says.
The strongest argument for Kosovo's independence lies across the snow-capped mountains which mark its southern boundary. Drive into Macedonia and you find a place which itself very nearly plunged into war four years ago, with several circumstances similar to Kosovo's. Albanians and Slavs lived under a kind of social apartheid with separate schools and largely mono-ethnic villages and suburbs. An incipient civil war was under way as disgruntled Albanians attacked the police and created no-go areas.
So how did Macedonia avoid Kosovo's fate? To find out, I went to Lake Ohrid, one of Europe's least-known tourist pearls, a magnificent inland sea flanked by a dozen ancient churches. In a villa snuggling among the pine trees, European, American and local negotiators spent several weeks in 2001 hammering out an agreement which brought Macedonia back from the abyss. Unlike in Kosovo, western governments stepped in early to broker a peace deal.
Its most contentious element, a redrawing of municipal boundaries and devolution of power from the centre, only went into effect last month. Struga, one of the lake-side counties, was the first to switch from Macedonian to Albanian control. It was "un-gerrymandered" so that its Albanian majority is no longer split into different villages. As a result, an Albanian mayor was elected for the first time. The outgoing Macedonian, a hardline nationalist who once threatened to declare Struga's independence, gave a lecture instead of a gracious farewell before grudgingly shaking his successor's hand. But at least he accepted change peacefully. This is the second difference from Kosovo: no Milosevic. At local and national level, most Macedonian politicians saw the value of making appropriate concessions to the other community rather than going to war.
While bridges have been built, they are not yet all crossed. Macedonia's political parties are still split on ethnic lines. Ramiz Merko, Struga's new mayor, acknowledges that few Macedonians voted for him: "In our manifesto we did our best to drop all the patriotic stuff, and leave that to history. We want to improve the standard of living of all families." One of his first tasks is to get Albanians into town hall jobs and other local government offices which are currently 95% Macedonian.
On the Albanians' side, the best living example of Macedonia's spirit of compromise is a politician who escaped arrest as a student in Pristina university in the early 1980s, got asylum in Switzerland, worked in the Albanian political underground, and came back secretly to Macedonia to launch the 2001 war. Ali Ahmeti then accepted a ceasefire and became a major player behind the Ohrid accords. Macedonian leaders still saw him as a terrorist, but foreign diplomats negotiated with him. He now heads the Democratic Union of Integration, which came out as the largest Albanian party in the last two elections and runs the country in coalition with Macedonians.
It is a remarkable twist, which might not have happened if the World Trade Centre had been attacked a few weeks earlier. The Ohrid accords were signed on August 13 2001, but if the "war on terror" had already been under way President Bush and Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, could have refused the green light to their officials to talk to Ahmeti.
In the mountains above Tetovo, veterans of the five-month guerrilla war still worship Ahmeti, though they complain the country's coalition government has not improved the economy yet. Qamil Huseyni, 26, shows me the huge war memorial in Selce, where the guerrillas used to have their headquarters. It was put up with diaspora funds. "Twenty-six martyrs will be reburied here in May. We are also going to erect a tall, double-headed black eagle at a cost of euros 40,000 (about pounds 28,000) that will be visible down in Tetovo," he says proudly. The eagle is the Albanian symbol.
Huseyni travels to Tetovo in a battered taxi every day to study English and German. Some of his friends plan to pay the euros 1,500 (pounds 1,000) needed to get a forged German visa on the black market. "There is no work here," he says.
The most hopeful place in Macedonia is Tetovo's new university, where Macedonians and Albanians mingle with amazing normality. It was set up shortly before the brief war under an "affirmative action" programme to provide higher education for Albanians in their own language. About a quarter of its students are Macedonians. Courses are given in both languages, and some faculties such as Communication Sciences give all their tuition in English in the third and fourth years. "This place is becoming more prestigious than expected, and the best secondary school graduates from Skopje [Macedonia's capital] want to come here," says Vladimir Radevski, dean of the communications faculty. "It's a unique meeting place for the two communities. My colleagues and friends in Skopje were surprised when I came here. Some claimed Albanians couldn't learn computer science. Others just asked why I would want to teach Albanians."
And this is the third difference from Kosovo. Enough members of the elite of both sides are willing to cross ethnic boundaries so that resistance crumbles. There may be minor social pressure against bridge-building, but there is no physical violence to deter it. Once a critical mass forms in favour of tolerance, bigotry is driven to the margins.
But there is one even more important difference. I was told numerous times that everything depends on the majority being confident the existence of their state is not under threat. Macedonians, who are a clear majority, once feared the largely Albanian parts might split off, but that fear is now discarded since all sides realise that entry into the EU would be impossible if war resumed or the state split.
In Kosovo, the state question is unresolved. As long as the Albanian majority is not assured that the door has permanently slammed on Serbian rule, tensions are bound to continue.