Embattled Serbs of Krajina 'have God on their side': Robert Fisk, in the last of a series of articles on former Yugoslavia, is lectured on the perfidy of Croats and Muslims by a minister in the Serbian Orthodox Church

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The Independent Online
FATHER Starrofor Mrdjen rolled his 'r's like a Scots preacher. When his wife stood beside him in her high- necked black dress, they looked like the God-fearing farming couple in American Gothic. And when I asked Fr Mrdjen about the future, he delivered - immediately, without interruption and in a voice like thunder - the following homily: 'The Serbs were in this area 30 years before the Croats. Our Church of St Luke was built here in 872 AD. The Serbs were first mentioned in history in 1200 AD. There are a lot of monuments that there were Serbs in this time present here in Knin. We have three monasteries here. The parochial churches were built 600 years ago. The Serbian people were here before the battle of Kosovo in 1389. The most significant immigration of Serbs to this area was between 1424 and 1426. Would you like coffee or a glass of wine?'

The sun was dropping behind the hills outside Fr Mrdjen's living room, a solitary bulb now illuminating his great white fluffy beard as his hands, big preacher's hands, touched the flask of brown-coloured home-made wine on the table in front of him, his heavy rolling voice enunciating the lineage of his people. You could feel the sense of comfort his congregation must have acquired in the Serbian Orthodox Church of Knin, deep inside the notional Serb Krajina Republic, when they listened to this historical roll-call. The Ottoman invasion had turned the Serbs into a wall against Islam, into 'defenders of western civilisation' who stood alone against barbarism while the local Croats skulked off to the Dalmatian islands for refuge.

Yet the Serbs were oppressed, forced to convert to Catholicism by a Croatian community that wished to enlarge its numbers amid the towering mountains of the Krajina. 'They resisted the invasion of Catholicism as long as they could, but under pressure they had to convert,' Father Mrdjen bellowed. 'They forced 20,000 Serbs to convert to Catholicism between Karlobag and Makarska in the years after 1793. In receiving this Catholic faith, the Serbs lost their own identity. But out of all this, something remained, the Serbian language, which all the Croats speak now.' So much for the notion that Serbian is merely a dialect of the Slav language that we used to call Serbo- Croatian.

This unending, obsessive, incestuous history lesson became more, rather than less, passionate as the evening wore on, a dusk made medieval by the distant clip-clop of horses that have replaced the car in fuel-starved Krajina. The wine flask was emptied into a set of glasses, served to us by Fr Mrdjen's high- cheekboned son. A Scots minister might have talked of fire and brimstone, but this was a sermon about political justification that took on its own logic the longer it continued.

'The Serbs have always had a better position in war than in peace,' Fr Mrdjen insisted. 'In war, they died. In peace they lost their identity, their faith, even their territory. So we lost through forced conversion and we lost also 1.2 million dead in the Second World War. Many Serbs who refused to convert went to Vojvodina or to Russia. So those Serbs who remained on this territory could only remain hard like . . .' And here the priest pointed through the window to the granite face of a mountain above Knin. 'Like those stones - those rocks over there. And this hardness is the only reason why before the war 92 per cent of Krajina were Serbs.'

And here, of course, Fr Mrdjen had broached the purpose of his extraordinary lecture. The Serbs of Krajina had a right to declare, and now to keep, their own republic inside Croatia - because they were an oppressed Serbian majority in the area. 'We were forced to live together with the Croats,' he said. 'It was a dispute between brothers, yes, but it was also a dispute over property - so we had to separate. You know what they say, 'two brothers, two meadows, two states'.'

And then came a little modern history, less specific, more troubling. 'It is very clear the Serbs (of Krajina) didn't attack anyone in this war. There were some individual crimes, of course; it happens mostly if someone in a family is killed - but we were outlawed by the Croatian constitution (which did not mention Serbian citizens) and put outside the law. The Croats wanted to exterminate us and nothing remained but to defend ourselves in the Easter of 1991. We Serbs have been oppressed for 1,000 years: we won two wars on the battlefields this century and lost both through negotiations.'

No Serb had left a Croatian wife because of the war, Fr Mrdjen claimed. 'But there are a lot of Croatian women who have left their husbands because they are Serbs; in Sibenik and Split a lot of Serbian army officers asked their Croatian wives to go back to Yugoslavia (Serbia) with them - there were lots of cases where officers moved to Serbia and their wives and children chose to stay behind. Those children will be brought up Croats, though they are Serbs.'

And the Muslims, we asked, would they also suffer the lash of Fr Mrdjen's tongue? Indeed they would. 'Muslims don't follow Western manners - not in Bosnia, not in France. There are a lot of them among you.' And here a warning finger was pointed in our direction. 'They are spreading. They are well-organised. They are richer than you. You should take care. They say they are not interested in expansion but this is a lie. They are a danger to us today - tomorrow they will be a danger to you. It's all about money.'

Such malign warnings had been heard in this land about another helpless minority 50 years ago, although this did not appear to cross Fr Mrdjen's mind. He was much more at ease when we asked him what God would have thought about the Balkan war. 'Maybe he is punishing us,' he said, stroking that dusty white beard. 'Maybe because we were Communists.'