Liberation Of Kosovo: Inside Kosovo - Serbs' time is up after 1,000 years

IN THE square at Velika Hoca the men of the village were gathered under a sprawling tree, idling away the day, fearful of the future. They know their time is up. "We cannot go anywhere. We cannot go into town to shop, we cannot work. This is no way for us to live," said Vidosav Cukaric, the former headteacher of the local school. "There is nothing to stay for. There is no life, there is no freedom."

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said yesterday that at least 71,000 Serbs had fled Kosovo in the past two weeks.This extremely conservative estimate represents at least a third of the original population. It also represents a failure of Nato's commitment to creating an environment in which both Serbs and Albanians feel safe.

The villagers in Velika Hoca certainly do not feel safe. There has been a village here for 1,000 years but in all that time no Albanian has lived here. That seems about to change. Even here, perhaps the biggest 100 per cent Serb community in Kosovo, the people are leaving.

It is easy to understand why. There is just one road into the village, deep in a valley close to Prizren in south-west Kosovo, and that is protected by a unit of Dutch soldiers who have set up roadblocks with tanks and barbed wire. No vehicle is allowed to enter or leave the valley without first being rigorously searched.

"Without us the people here would be dead. I don't think they would stand a chance on their own," said one of the Dutch soldiers, who have set up their roadblocks where the Serb special police guarded the village.

The locals seem to agree. Once a village of about 1,400 people, up to a third of the population has left, either to Serbia or Montenegro. Mr Cukaric said: "We will go anywhere that is safe. We don't want to leave. It's really hard that we have to go but we have to think of the young people. I feel that I will be letting down my ancestors but this is a bigger thing. How can we stay?"

The history they would be leaving behind makes the villagers feel so desperate. There are 13 Orthodox churches, six still holding services, and they are full of treasures dating back more than 500 years.

Every day Father Milenko administers to the villagers. "I cannot talk about politics without the written permission of the bishop," he said. "All I know is that without love and hope we have no life."

The priest's wife said: "This is all holy land, the land of the church. That is why it will be so hard to leave."

But this land also has darker echoes. There are strong rumours among the Albanian population that it was villagers from Velika Haca who were involved in the massacre at nearby Velika Krusa, currently being investigated by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Mr Cukaric side-stepped such questions. "For the past 10 years the Albanians have not wanted anything to do with the Serb state or the Serb people."

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