24 March 2007

Serbs mark Christmas in shadow of Kosovo decision

Reuters, Sun Jan 7, 2007 10:26 AM ET By Matt Robinson


MITROVICA, Serbia (Reuters) - The bus belched fumes as the Serbs alighted. They streamed through long brown grass, crossed chests with three fingers and kissed the stone entrance to the blackened Saint Sava church in Mitrovica.


Under NATO and police escort, dozens of Serbs on Sunday made the short trip by bus across the river and into the southern, mainly Albanian half of Mitrovica in Kosovo.


They came to mark Orthodox Christmas in a church abandoned with the end of the war in 1999 and gutted by rioters in 2004.


Breath visible in the cold air, a small choir broke into song as they filled the dank building. Light streamed through the empty windows.


"We know we are on our own ground, and that we will try to stay," said Father Milija Arsic. "The Serbian state was always here, and God willing it will remain so."


Kosovo's 100,000 Serbs marked Orthodox Christmas this year -- January 7 by the Julian calendar -- in the knowledge that it could well be their last within the official borders of Serbia.


In late January, the major Western powers and Russia are due to take delivery of a report by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari that it widely expected to open the door to independence for Kosovo.


A decision at the U.N. Security Council could come by April, eight years since NATO launched its first "humanitarian" war, bombing for 11 weeks to drive out Serb forces under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.


Ninety percent of the province's 2 million people are ethnic Albanians. They insist on building their own state, after Milosevic tried to empty them from the province in a counter-insurgency that killed 10,000.




The Serbs, who claim Kosovo as their religious heartland, are sizing up their future.


"I can't say it will be the last Christmas in Kosovo, because I'm an optimist," shop assistant Slavisa Stefanovic said in his cramped apartment. "The most beautiful Christmas is in Kosovo. I plan to stay here with my family, where I was born."


Tens of thousands of Serbs fled a wave of revenge attacks with the end of the war and deployment of 50,000 NATO soldiers. Those who stayed face discrimination and sporadic violence, many in isolated rural ghettos.


Slavisa came to Mitrovica, the Kosovo Serbs' last urban center, in 1999, having fled the western town of Djakovica.


He moved into an apartment abandoned by an Albanian, one of hundreds who crossed into the south as the town's ethnic divide was cemented at the River Ibar. Slavisa has never returned to Djakovica, and barely hides his contempt for Albanians he describes as "vermin".


A day earlier, on Christmas Eve, a dozen Serbs danced arm-in-arm on the bridge to a Gypsy brass band. They shared a bottle of Red Label whisky and sang songs of the medieval battle the Serbs lost to the Ottoman Turks on fields north of the capital Pristina.


"Wherever I go", they sang to the plodding rhythm, "I always come back to you. No one can take Kosovo from my soul."


Serbs in north Kosovo warn they might split the province at the river that cuts through Mitrovica should Kosovo secede, a move the West says could have a domino effect across the region.


The 17,000 NATO-led peacekeepers are braced for violence.


On the bridge, one drunken Serb aimed a kick at a passing U.N. bus and a pistol slipped from his waistband. He scurried to retrieve it. The band kept playing and an American police patrol looked on unmoved, so as not to spoil the festive cheer.