Monks keep the Kosovo flame burning

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Safe haven? A monk at prayer in Decani. So far, the monastery has not suffered any violence, but the monks are an obvious target Photograph: David Rose

"LORD have mercy", sings the choir, basso profundo. Gospodi pomilui ... Gospodi pomilui ... Gospodi pomilui. The voices echo through the medieval monastery of Decani, in the still-Serb province of Kosovo. The bearded monks celebrate mass in this most beautiful of Serbian churches as though everything were normal. But these are not normal times. Even the most devout believer must suffer twinges of doubt about the quality of mercy, as the region rumbles towards full-scale war.

The monastery, with its rich interior, covered from floor to roof in stunning 14th-century frescoes, is at the heart of the belief in the Serbness of Kosovo. Barely 10 per cent of the population of Kosovo is Serb. Few have ever visited this poverty-stricken region. But they will still tell you this is their "heartland". Demographically, politically and geographically, the phrase is wrong. Historically, it is correct. In the Balkans, that is all that counts.

The humiliating defeat by the Turks at the battle of Kosovo Field in 1389 marked a date to remember for every Serb - "the Armageddon of the Serbian people", in one writer's phrase. After Kosovo Field, only the monasteries remained, scattered across the region in commemoration of Serb rule. Each is full of historical resonance - like the monastery at Gracanica, whose monks gave communion to Tsar Lazar and his army before the battle of Kosovo Field.

The Serbs have long been outnumbered. The traveller Edith Durham wrote at the beginning of this century, "The [Serb] cause was lost, dead and gone - as lost as is Calais to England, and the English claim to Normandy." But the monasteries have remained, as the high-water mark of an ancient Serb identity.

In 1989, on the 600th anniversary of Kosovo Field, the Serb Communist leader Slobodan Milosevic proclaimed that Serbs must be the masters once more. The majority Albanians were to be crushed. Serbs adored their powerful new leader - failing to realise the new culture of repression might blow up in their face.

In Kosovo, the repression is stronger than ever before. A few miles from the tranquillity of Decani, Serb police recently have been killing Albanians and destroying their homes. There are armed checkpoints in the town. As you travel through the villages, you meet Albanians packing up their belongings and abandoning their homes - on carts, on tractors, on foot. There is a mood of fear and an expectation of full-scale war.

In the short term, well-equipped Serb forces hold all the cards. But the Albanian majority cannot be repressed by military force for ever. Already, an armed backlash has begun, which seems certain to get worse. The monks of Decani feel nervous.

Fr Sava, a senior monk at Decani, is unusual in criticising the policies of Slobodan Milosevic for propelling Kosovo towards war. "Serbia should be democratised. An undemocratic regime has done nothing to make the situation better - but has used this situation for its own power." So far, Decani has not itself suffered violence. But Fr Sava and his fellow monks are an obvious, if innocent target. Attacks have been reported at the convent at Devic, in the heart of the Drenica area, where the Albanian rebellion is strongest. Fr Sava knows confrontation is no way into the future, and insists: "No side should have dominance over the other." But you cannot help feeling it may be too late for reconciliation.

Many Serbs now living here have themselves been expelled from their homes - for example, from the Krajina region of Croatia. The Serb authorities did not want them in Belgrade, and promised them "reception centres" in Kosovo. It was a lie; there were no reception centres, they have been abandoned .

The words of Edith Durham, written in 1909, seem horrifically apposite today. "Ineradicably fixed in the breast of the Albanian is the belief that the land has been his rightly for all time ... It has been an elemental struggle for existence and survival of the strongest, carried out in relentless obedience to nature's law, which says `There is not place for you both. You must kill - or be killed'."