Kosovo's Serbs mourn as defiance turns to defeat

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The Independent Online
THE LILTING funeral chant of the Orthodox faith sounded again in Kosovo last week, as thousands of beleaguered and embittered Serbs gathered to bury their dead: at least three civilians, three policemen and a soldier killed by separatist Albanian rebels.

Father Svetislav Nojic, dressed in black with a purple and gold surplice, burnt incense over the coffins of Radivoje and Ljubisa Mitrovic, brothers shot dead on Thursday night, apparently for running a checkpoint manned by the Kosovo Liberation Army in the mixed village of Mijalic. His fellow priests sang the office as relatives and mourners wept.

"They were cut down by the evil hands of Albanian terrorists and fascists," one relative said in a graveside speech. "They lost their lives defending their homes and the lives of other Serbs in that village... This fresh blood means we must protect our land, our houses, and what remains of Serbian youth in Kosovo."

Hundreds of Serbs gathered in the cemetery nodded approvingly. There was little hostility towards the few Western journalists on the scene, for it seems the Kosovo Serbs are moving away from earlier defiance and towards reluctant defeat. "We have nothing to talk about," Father Nojic said after the funeral. "America is protecting these terrorists and everything is getting worse and worse. We are very worried. We are praying to God to protect our Serbian people."

Many of those present did not know the victims; they had come simply to express solidarity with the family, especially since KLA rebels are still holding Radivoje's son, Miljan. "We hope honesty and justice will be victorious - just look at this cemetery, some of the graves are 300 years old," said Jovan Peric, a pensioner, without much optimism. "We will fight to the end. We will fight to stay, but you never know what will happen."

The overwhelming majority of Serbs are aggrieved that Belgrade's policy of repression towards the Albanian majority is seen as unjust and illegal. "They had everything, but they always want more," said Slavica Djurdjevic, who runs a newspaper kiosk in the suburb of Kosovo Polje, site of a battle in 1389 against the invading Muslims. The Serbs venerate this historic defeat, hence their desire to cling to a piece of land where they are so vastly outnumbered. "Whatever they give to the Albanians it will be bad for Serbs - we can only move out," Mrs Peric added.

"The people are okay, but their politicians... We lived with them for a long time, and it wasn't a problem," said Mr Peric. "But now people think differently." He knows who is to blame, and it is not President Slobodan Milosevic, who stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989. "If the Americans stop meddling, then these politicians will be kicked out."

And Washington is not the only foreign force at fault, according to Mr Peric. "Since the Osce [the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe] has come we have had more victims than before. They are making the problem."

John Drewienkiewicz deals daily with the Serbs in his role as deputy chief of the Osce verification mission. "What they want is for Albanians to do what they're told, to know their place," said the British major- general. "I don't think there's a feeling of wanting to wipe them out. They want to deal severely with those who challenge authority."

The Albanians in Kosovo are second-class citizens. The Yugoslav government has passed certain laws applicable only to this province. It is illegal for Albanians, for example, to buy real estate of any kind in Kosovo from Serbs. And Serbs who settle in Kosovo are given land from collective farms, grants to build houses and tax-exempt status for a period.

But for the Serbs the issue is black and white. "The Serb authorities are not harassing anyone," said Rade, a teacher. "It was their decision to quit their jobs and boycott state institutions. They should not get a government. This is Serbia and has to remain Serbia."

As always, the innocent suffer. "Today, we are not just crying for these two people, but for all the Serb victims of terrorist crimes," another mourner said at the Mitrovica funeral. And, as usual, the prayers exclude the others, the many Albanians who weep for the dead of Kosovo.

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