A Serbian enclave in Yorkshire
A community beseiged by journalism's snipers. That's how one group of Serbs in Halifax see themselves. But Peter Popham saw them rather differentl y
The one-car train grinds through the tunnels that pierce the small, steep hills between Leeds, where Dusanka lives, and Halifax. She wants to show me the church as an antidote to what she supposes to be my prejudices. "What is happening in this church is different from Serbian nationalism in Yugoslavia," she says. "People come for a sense of belonging - they come from all over, not only from Serbia." The key for her is the holy character of Father Obren, who is unlike anyone she has ever met before.
The church stands on a steep hill amid the landmarks of the industrial West Riding landscape, the mills and gasometers and blackened monuments, and sudden rearings-up of green. It used to belong to the Methodists, but the former congregation would blink at what the Serbs have done to this plain, boxy Victorian chapel. The front garden is planted with dwarf Serbian spruce. Inside the door there is a man selling candles, which worshippers plant in deep circular trays of sand in the nave, upper tier for the living, lower for the dead.
The chapel is alive with flat, colourful paintings of saints - standing on the earth, floating in the air, full-length or close up. The chancel is divided from the nave by a panelled screen covered in such pictures.Above the altar, large cheerful paintings of Jesus and God the Father stare down.
Unlike modern services in other churches, where priests involve the congregation, here the priest keeps his green-and-gold-clad back to us most of the time, emerging occasionally from the sanctuary to swing smoking censers, then retiring again and even hauling a heavy crimson curtain across to compound his isolation. We stand throughout, except for the five-minute sermon. The service is accompanied by quavering tuneless singing, led by the priest's ancient but spirited wife. Most of the congregation are men, most over 50. The community was established after the war by monarchist refugees from Tito's revolution. Many of the worshippers have been here for 20 or 30 years or more.
Dusanka's hope, I think, is that by meeting the members of her congregation I will discover how open, broad-minded and non-fanatical Serbs can be. It doesn't work out quite like that.
At the end of the service, the presence of an Independent journalist is announced. We troop to the spartan hall downstairs, where the air is already pungent with Balkan cigarette smoke, to take coffee. Father Obren sits opposite me across the trestle-table. He is a short, gentle, wiry man who looks all the time as if he has just swallowed something unexpectedly sour, and whose chin and cheeks are sparsely dotted with long curling hairs. I lob him gentle questions - How long here? How affected by the war? - and Dusanko interprets.
"No, no, that's not what he said!" interjects a beanpole of a man with blazing black eyes, a lantern jaw and a powerful Yorkshire twang. Within about 15 seconds we have reached the crux of the matter: namely, Western countries don't understand the truth about the war; it is reported with flagrant partiality; and the West is supporting the Muslims for one reason - oil.
Rapidly a consensus emerges: my presence demands a proper meeting. Coffee is gulped down and within minutes we are back out of the door, up the stairs into the hall next door, where small notices on the wall, adorned with Union Jacks and silhouettes of blasted Serbian spruces, declare:
United we will stand
Divided we will fall
Long Live Serbia
Death is Come, but Freedom, Not
Sanction on Serbia?
Shame on You
I am bundled into a long room and placed on a chair in front of a desk at one end while 12 male members of the congregation take seats facing me. It's an inverted press conference out of a paranoid dream - the solitary journalist grilled by a roomful of angry experts. They've had no warning of my arrival, but now I'm here they can't believe their luck. Because I am a representative of what they most loathe.
Their spokesman is Miros Lukic, who has been here since he was a toddler: balding and broadening and as Yorkshire as Ray Illingworth. "The war's affected us enormously," he says. "Up until three years ago, nobody knew where we came from. Now people say, which part of Yugoslavia? You daren't say you're from Serbia ... If you say you're Serbian, you feel there's a wall being built up around you.
"I used to believe the British press was neutral," he went on. "But Martin Bell" - he spat the name - "is a disgrace to his profession ... Maggie O'Kane is a disgrace to her profession. She should be struck off!"
Halifax's Serbs are not supporters of Milosevic. "They're all ex-communists, Milosevic, Tudjman, Izetbegovic, all manufactured from the same die, made from the same instructions." But they are infuriated by what they see as the naked partiality of the British press. "We are ashamed of ourselves, reading in the paper. How come you people are against us? It's so one- sided - only one side is covered."
"Hundreds of thousands of Serbian houses were burned, people made homeless, in the area where I come from," says another man.
"Every TV film shows synagogues and Catholic churches destroyed - there's no film of the Orthodox churches that have been destroyed ... "
Miros Lukic resumes: "We know that all three sides are committing atrocities, all three sides carry out ethnic cleansing. I've got a task for you. I'll give you a map showing all the towns with minority populations. I give you the task of going and finding out what has happened to the minority populations in each town."
"Go to Western Slavonia," says another man, "where the Muslims told the UN to get out. There are 10,000 Serbs missing from Slavonia. People say to excuse what happened, oh, Western Slavonia is different, it's not a safe area ... "
And on. They have a point - they have many points. They get them off their chests. Mr Lukic promised me his map. I await it by next post. "In World War Two," someone says, "three million Serbs died for the Allies. Now the Western press is making monsters of the Serbian people. You people - can't you see the tragedy here?"
Their passion sufficiently spent, I am led out of the room and outside the hall to Father Obren's home, the chimney breast erupting with icons and photographs, the surfaces garish with psychedelic crocheted cushion covers. The women of the church ply me with two types of soup, chicken, roast potatoes, wine, whisky, plum brandy and cake. Father Obren comes in wearing a cassock and sits next to me, still with the same kindly, perplexed expression.
Unlike the men in his flock, he has little to say about the war - only this. "It's the Crucifixion which is followed by the Resurrection. You have to drink the bitter glass first; afterwards you drink the glass of honey. The point is forgiveness, not revenge."
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