Only those men, women and children actually caught up in it could possibly grasp the magnitude of the devastation raining down on the tiny Serbian province of Kosovo. Since NATO initiated air strikes on March 24 in response to the Serbs' brutal effort to rid Kosovo of all ethnic Albanians, Serb forces have accelerated their campaign of atrocities. Tens of thousands of men and boys of military age have been rounded up; it is feared that untold numbers of them have been murdered. As for Kosovo's women, children and elderly, aid agencies estimate that some 700,000 have been displaced from their homes; more than half have crossed into Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. "I've seen some pretty horrific things," says Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, the United Nations' children's relief agency. "But what's going on in the Balkans is unmatched by anything in Europe since the aftermath of World War II."

In the chaos, families are being pulled apart, sometimes accidentally, often deliberately. The New York City-based International Rescue Committee—one of more than 60 organizations from 35 countries active in the relief effort—estimates that 120,000 children have become separated from their families. "And it's possible that several thousand children may have died," says Marie de la Soudiere, who heads the IRC's children's program. "Children are killed not only by bullets but by disease and malnutrition."

In the relative safety of the temporary camps, the surviving children—perhaps 65 percent of the refugee tide, according to the U.S. aid group World Vision—speak of seeing their homes burned, their sisters raped, their fathers killed. Chalon Lee, 44, one of some 100 American aid workers in the camps, says professionals must begin addressing the youngsters' trauma. "Often," she says, "parents can't help because they are dealing with the fact that their lives have been destroyed."

Here are a few of these children's stories, related through interpreters to PEOPLE correspondents on the scene.

Amid death and devastation, a child is born

Lejdina Berisha entered the world without fanfare. No flowers, no birth announcement, not even a scale to weigh her. But the fact that she made it at all is, for her parents, Remzije and Ragip Berisha, a near miracle. After her birth, on April 8 at the Brazde refugee camp on the outskirts of the Macedonian city of Skopje, they named her Lejdina—Kosovar for field. "She was born in a field," says Remzije, 29, "so we thought we should call her that."

The Berishas had delayed their flight from their home in Pristina, hoping that Remzije would deliver before they had to leave. But about two weeks ago, as Remzije was dressing her 17-month-old daughter, Fjolla, a Serbian paramilitary leader arrived in their neighborhood and ordered his troops to fire into homes. "There were cases of pregnant women being killed in Kosovo," says Ragip, 34, "so Remzije was very, very afraid."

Though Remzije is calmer now, she frets about Fjolla, who is losing weight because she doesn't like the rations, such as bread, oranges and canned tuna, and worries about keeping Lejdina warm. "One, two, three weeks in these conditions can lead to hypothermia," warns Isaiah Hendler, the obstetrician who delivered Lejdina. Remzije still talks in her sleep about running from the police. Five family members were killed last December, and she has no idea where her mother is. "I want to know my family is alive," she says, "and then someday I will show them my baby."

Affection and shelter for a little girl lost in the refugee throng

The walk was only a quarter of a mile, but by the end of it, little Jehona Aliu had suffered a child's worst nightmare. The 5-year-old from Ferizaj had ridden a train with her parents and four siblings right up to the Macedonian frontier, where the hundreds of refugees disembarked to cross over. Then, Jehona stepped behind a tree to go to the bathroom. "When I came back they were gone," she says of her family. "I started crying. I looked for them, but I couldn't find them."

Jehona doesn't remember how many weeks it has been since her father, hearing shooting near their home, told the girls to get dressed and ready to go. "Why are we going?" she asked. The answer: "We're going into the forest to hide from the war." Now living at the Brazde refugee camp, she wonders when she will see him again.

Yet amid the chaos, she found a protector: British army Capt. Bill Soper, 48, who met her soon after she arrived at the camp, filthy and famished. "She hadn't eaten in days," says Soper, who helped set up the camp—teeming with some 15,000 refugees—until NATO turned it over to relief agencies last week. "The first day she was here she ate all day." Soper arranged a private tent for the girl, complete with electricity and heat, then placed her with Fatmire Cecelia, 27, and her husband, Xhavit, 33. They have been unable to find their own two young sons since troops diverted the car the kids were riding in down a different road from the one the parents took in their tractor. The couple was happy to take in Jehona. "I think she likes it here. She's the center of attention," says Fatmire.

Meanwhile, Soper has posted the little girl's picture at several refugee camps, hoping to turn up her parents. "They could be in Turkey," he says, "or at a camp down the road." Says Jehona: "I miss my family a lot. I want to go home."

After a final supper, a family is torn asunder

The last time 10-year-old Sevdije Rrahmani saw her parents was the night of April 5, when, with Serbian troops nearby, her family sat down to a modest farewell dinner of bread and sausage. Late that night, Sevdije slipped on her little red rubber boots and set out into the darkness with an older sister and her two older brothers, leaving their parents behind and heading for the border. "When it was time to go," she says, "my parents hugged me and said, 'Have a safe trip.' "

By 5 the next afternoon, the four had reached the safety of Macedonia, but only after struggling through three feet of snow over a mountain pass. "It is very bad for us," says her brother Hysen, 14, now living with his siblings at NATO's Nepresteno Refugee Camp in northwestern Macedonia. "But it could be worse—we made it across the border."

The family's tragic journey began last September, after Serbian tanks and infantry blasted Kashtanjeva, the village where the Rrahmanis had a small farm. "After they shelled the village, we had to leave," says Sevdije. In the months that followed, the family journeyed to three other villages before the children set out for the border, leaving father Kadri, 59, and mother Nezire, 50, behind. "They were old and didn't know if they could cross the mountain," says Hysen, who had packed his treasured school photos when they left home, but "we've moved to so many places they've since gone."

Now Hysen's older brother Mehmet, 28, and sister Dashurije, 21, look after the children in the camp. "I can't be my father," says Mehmet, "but I must act like him to keep the family together." It has, of course, been difficult getting used to the foam mattresses in the tent they share with 19 other refugees, ranging in age from 7 months to 40 years. "We should say we sleep well," says Hysen, "but you can sleep nowhere like you can in your own home."

A child's dreams corrupted by war

On her first evening in Blace, a squalid refugee camp that briefly "straddled the border of Kosovo and Macedonia, Adelina Berisha was sent by her mother to get water from aid workers. Exhausted and confused, the 10-year-old turned in the wrong direction and found herself lost on the Kosovo side of the border. Alert to her error, she hid in the nearby hills. "I was terrified sleeping alone at night," she says. "I never thought I'd see my parents again."

The next morning, as she awoke, a Serb soldier spotted her. "I'm going to kill you!" he yelled, then cocked his head menacingly and told her, "You're free to go." As Adelina began to run, she thinks the soldier lobbed a grenade at her. "At first I couldn't feel anything," she recalls. "There was smoke coming out of my arm." She has no memory of making her way to the train tracks just inside Macedonian territory, where a Macedonian soldier found her unconscious and carried her back to the camp.

The next thing Adelina remembers is waking up at the Red Cross clinic in Blace, where she was soon reunited with her family before being moved two days later to Brazde, the largest refugee camp in Macedonia. There, at a field hospital run by the Israeli army, she had her own green cot, an assortment of teddy bears and dolls and the doting attention of the staff. "I just adored her," says Lt. Col. Mike Phillips, an American with the multinational Kosovo Verification Mission. "She's a bright spot in a sad situation." Even so, the enchantress with the deep brown eyes was not out of danger. Israeli doctors feared that if Adelina was not airlifted to Western Europe for surgery, she would lose the use of her hand. Yet Adelina balked at her parents' plan to join relatives in Germany. "I like it here. The people are nice to me," she said firmly, oblivious to the screams of babies in the pediatrics unit who were battling diarrhea, dehydration and nausea. "The only place I want to go next is my home"—meaning her family's farm in the mountain village of Boric.

Her reluctance to leave again was understandable. A few months ago, she was playing on a pair of homemade skis when her father, Hajdar, 43, ordered Adelina, her seven sisters and a brother into the house. After her mother, Sadie, 39, dressed all nine children in layers of winter clothing, the family set off on foot, chased by what Adelina describes as the "Booommm! Booommm! Booommm!" of Serbian artillery. After a 5½-hour trek through the snow—"It was so cold, I couldn't feel my legs," she says—they reached the home of an aunt near Pristina.

Two weeks later, Serb forces burst into the aunt's home, waving machine guns and demanding money. One masked soldier, says Adelina, "stole the TV and the car and told us to get out of Kosovo." While most of the family sought refuge with friends in Pristina, two of Adelina's sisters, Valbona, 14, and Shukria, 13, set out toward Boric to see if the fighting had diminished. "I don't know what happened to them," says Adelina. "I miss my sisters." One week later, the Berishas and thousands of other refugees were herded by Serb forces onto a train, then deposited a quarter of a mile from Blace. Last Tuesday, the Berishas were on the road yet again, this time airlifted to Düsseldorf, Germany, where two prominent surgeons, one American, one Italian, have offered to treat Adelina free of charge.

Not all that long ago, Adelina dreamed of learning how to milk her favorite cow on the family farm. Now she dreams of finding her two missing sisters—and exacting revenge. Asked if she had Serb friends back home, she shakes her head no. "If I see Serbs," she says with a disconcerting childish giggle, "I would like to kill them and cut them up in little pieces."

From Kansas, driven by conscience

Dr. Jeff Colyer, a plastic surgeon from Overland Park, Kans., came to the war zone with more than just his medical bag and his skill. He also came bearing a pink teddy bear named Eye Eye, a gift from his 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra, that she wanted passed along to some little girl from Kosovo. Now in the drab Albanian border town of Kukes, Colyer is trying to use Eye Eye to cheer up another 3-year-old, this one a refugee from Kosovo named Florinda, who has lost part of her nose and lip to a Serbian bomb that hit her family's home on April 1, killing her grandmother. But it is no use. Florinda cries and cringes fearfully when Colyer tries to examine her.

The vast scale of the suffering here comes as no particular shock to Colyer, a veteran of past missions with the International Medical Corps to the killing grounds of Afghanistan and Rwanda. "I know what I need to do; there's a real chomping at the bit," he says. "You steel yourself for the emotions and being tired and worn out." Colyer's greatest concern is for the refugees still in Kosovo—"the ones we can't see."

His wife, Ruth, a bone marrow transplant consultant who joined him in Rwanda in 1994, stayed behind this time in Overland Park with Alexandra and the couple's other daughter, Serena, 19 months. "In Rwanda, I saw so many things—that people really need help," says Ruth, who is expecting their third child in August. "I understand why he wants to do it." Still, she frets about her husband's safety, even though he has promised not to cross the border into Kosovo, where hostile Serb forces are marauding.

Over time, Florinda will need four or five operations to repair her face, and there is a slim chance she could be brought to the U.S. for treatment. (The key to any such visit, for Florinda and similar victims, is finding a willing and suitable host family.) "Back home is the most safe, secure place in the world," says Colyer. "You contrast that to what we're walking into—[it's] the most sinister place in the universe." Having survived such places before, Colyer knows that even he will not leave Albania unscathed. "After Rwanda I didn't sleep well for a long time," he says. "I've got no regrets, but I've picked up a couple of demons."

Heartache for a missing father

On the muddy pathways of the Radusa refugee camp, children play wherever they can, using plastic soda bottles as makeshift balls. Though Labinot Nitaj, 12, was an avid soccer player back home in Pristina, he now sits out the games. "He's crying all the time," says his mother, Ibadete, 39. "He doesn't speak very much about his feelings, but just asks when we're going to find his dad."

On April 3, Labinot was in line with his parents and two sisters to cross the border from Kosovo into Macedonia when a Macedonian soldier grabbed the father, Nexir, 40, and led him away. "My heart is constantly with him," says Labinot, now sharing a tent in the camp with the rest of his family. "He tells me everything, just like a friend. If I knew he was all right, I would feel so much better."

Nothing has been normal for the Nitaj family since March 13, when a neighbor knocked on the door to warn that Serbian soldiers were shooting up the neighborhood. "They held a machine gun to my dad's throat," says Labinot. "I started to cry, but my dad said, 'Relax, nothing will happen to us.' " Days later, the Nitajs crowded into their car to join a long caravan of automobiles headed south to Macedonia.

Then came the moment at the border. "I held on to my dad's arm and told the soldier, 'No, no, no! Let him go! He's coming with us,' " Labinot recalls. "The soldier said, 'That's too bad. Men must be separated from women and children.' " Again, his father tried to reassure him, but Labinot was so shaken he fainted. Now he wanders the camp, wondering about his father, and wakes at night screaming. Still, once a straight-A student, he holds out hope of returning home and going someday to medical school. "I want," he explains, "to take care of my mother, father and everyone else."

Jill Smolowe, Thomas Fields-Meyer and Bill Hewitt
Joanne Fowler, Pete Norman, Liz Corcoran, Nina Biddle

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Fowler,
  • Pete Norman,
  • Liz Corcoran,
  • Nina Biddle.