The Age
Serb plea for tolerance

By SIMON MANN

Sunday 23 April 2000


"Are you Cat-o-lick?" inquires the Orthodox priest. Watery spring sunshine seeps through green leaves and plays on the stone wall of the 14th century Monastery of the Annunciation in Gracanica, an ethnic Serbian town 10kilometres south-east of Pristina.

The dappled light falls on the priest's black gown and dances along the barrels of the automatic weapons that rest on the hips of the two Swedish soldiers standing guard nearby.

"Christ be with you," says the priest, smiling and holding out his hand. "This weekend and next weekend, too."

The orthodox Jesus must wait another week to be born again. But the resurrection of Kosovo's tortured Serb community, now confined to heavily fortified enclaves and deprived of basic freedoms and necessities, may take an eternity.

This Easter, the pain of Kosovo's war will be particularly acute for Orthodox followers grieving over the 85 churches and monasteries throughout the province that have been destroyed or desecrated by ethnic Albanians since last year's truce.

The monastery of Gracanica escaped major damage and its beautiful centuries-old frescoes remain intact. But talk of forgiveness does not come readily to Serbian lips here, not even to this man of the cloth, and the prospect of reconciliation for Serbs and Albanians seems as remote now as it ever did.

"The Muslims," says the priest, who asks not to be named, "they do not tolerate other religions."

A year after Europe's worst refugee crisis since the Second World War sent more than a million Albanian Kosovars spilling from the strife-torn Yugoslav province, the Easter symbolism remains just as potent. Only now, the victims have become the oppressors.

Gracanica's 3000 to 4000 ethnic Serbs are tormented by the fear of continuing violence and revenge killings. Two months ago, a 43-year-old Serb man was abducted and murdered, his body chopped up with an axe. The Serbs say his skull was split open and his brain and eyes were removed.

"What those murderers did a wild animal would not have done," says the priest's wife before spouting forth on terrorists, gangsters and the Albanians' deliberate plan to over-populate Kosovo "with their families of 12, 13, maybe 14 children each".

She acknowledges "mistakes" made by Kosovo communities but does not easily accept that Serbs may have been complicit in the violence against Albanians a year ago.

War crimes forensic experts may have uncovered 3000 multiple and mass graves, she says, but who's to say the bodies unearthed weren't those of Serbs? And who's to say the Albanians weren't deliberately moving bodies from grave to grave to trick investigators into believing there were many more victims than actually was the case?

In Gracanica, Serbs are hurting. Verica Jovanovic, 61, is selling garden produce in the main street - potatoes out of a plastic Nike bag for one German mark a kilogram, a lettuce for 50 pfennigs, garlic, spring onions and peppers in a bucket.

But within moments of introducing herself she is in a rush of tears as she relates the death of her 28-year-old nephew in Kosovo Polje, west of Pristina, last July.

He was gunned down near his home and Albanian children spat on his bullet-ridden body. Jovanovic left immediately after to join other internally displaced Serbs searching for a safe haven.

Kosovo Polje, once a Serb stronghold and the cherished battle turf chosen by President Slobodan Milosevic for his infamous clarion call to his people in 1989, has been progressively emptying of Serbs since the truce.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe estimates that 150 Serb houses have been sold and more than 60per cent of the remainder are up for sale in Kosovo Polje.

Everywhere there has been a steady exodus: Pristina's Serb population before the war topped 20,000 but today is less than 700.

The exception is the divided town of Mitrovica, a flashpoint of ethnic tensions where Serbs have rallied to maintain their grip on the town.

"The Albanians are terrorists and we are kept here in a cage," says Jovanovic.

Despite the running sore that is the Balkans, a handful of ethnic Albanians and gypsies remain in Gracanica.

In the main street the bakery is run by Albanians, and always has been.

The fact that they are Catholic, and not Muslim, makes them less of a target for harassment.

"We have always shared here," says Velika Trajkovic, 41. "We plant the fields together and we have had few problems. We don't mind who is president of this town as long as there is peace."

Yet everywhere there are reminders of war. There is no graffiti thanking "Bill Klinton and Tone Bler" for liberating Kosovo, no stars and stripes painted on the sides of houses or blood-red Kosovo Liberation Army flags with their menacing black eagle fluttering in trees and from power lines. But posters of dead and missing Serbs are pinned to power poles.

On the doors of the makeshift little hospital 14 mournful faces stare out from a poster. The men and boys pictured are the victims of one of the conflict's most grievous single atrocities - slaughtered as they harvested a field in nearby village of Staro Gradsko in July last year. Their assassin was a KLA soldier dressed in a stolen American peace-keeper's uniform who remains at large.

Inside the hospital, 32-year-old Dragana Popovic laments the pitiful conditions under which she must work.

The stethoscope draped around her neck and a blood pressure instrument on her desk are her only tools of trade. Antibiotics and medicines are scarce. There is no X-ray machine, no blood-testing facilities, no laboratory, no cardiograph machine. Phones do not work so there is no opportunity to ring out for advice.

Emergency cases are sent under armed escort by the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping troops to the Russian military hospital in Kosovo Polje, 30 minutes away.

Sick and injured people in neighboring villages also attend Gracanica hospital but often are too frail to make the trip. A French medical team late last year went to the village of Lebane and found 34 elderly Serbs there, some with chronic diseases, who had not seen a doctor for six months.

Serb mobility relies heavily on KFOR army cooperation. Gracanica residents only ever leave under armed guard. Buses take them to and from Serbia twice a week - on Tuesdays and Fridays - where they buy goods to sell in Kosovo, meet relatives or collect welfare.

The fast-moving convoy can involve as many as three or four fully laden coaches and eight army vehicles and motorcycles. Yesterday's trip also received helicopter support.

"It's awful that it has come to this," says a Serb translator Gordana Blanusa, who works with United Nations officials in Gracanica.

"The people feel trapped here. They don't have freedoms but most do not want to leave either ... For me, why would I go to Serbia? There are no jobs there and I would end up living in a room with five other refugee families."

All over Kosovo, the ethnic Serb minority require the protection of the multinational forces.

In Podujevo, in the north-east, two Serb families determined to remain in their homes receive 24-hour protection. In Djakovica, in the south-west, seven Serbs live in the orthodox church in the centre of town heavily guarded by Italian KFOR troops.

They are the only Serbs in a district of 30,000 people, the "Serb seven" as the peacekeepers have come to label them.

They tend the church as their "duty" and each day clean the house next-door - the home of the priest who fled months ago and has not been sighted.

The Serbs pray that he will come soon, restore their faith and resurrect their hopes.

"With the priest beside us we hope that we will one day be able to walk on the streets of Djakovica without guards," one of the women tells KFOR.

"We must have that hope."

In Kosovo, the cycle of death and new life, the gifts of love and tolerance, are as precious now as they ever were.



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