Reporter, Banja Luka, Republika Srpska
Issue 148, February 20, 2001


St. Sava's church in Mitrovica. A Greek soldier guarding the Serbian church situated in an Albanian quarter of the city

This, too, is Serbia (15):

“Reporter” in the southern part of Kosovska Mitrovica

A yardful of Serbs
[orig. title: Svi Srbi u jednoj porti]

Bridges, three of them, which have always connected shores and people, are a
synonym for division here. The Ibar has literally become the physical border
which separates this city into southern, Albanian and northern, Serbian
parts.

In the northern, Serbian part of the city, in addition to approximately
30,000 Serbs, live more than five thousand Albanians stationed, for the most
part, in three parts of the town: the Micro Settlement, Bosnjacka Mahala and
the Three Highrises.

The twenty-odd Serbs who live in the southern part of the city are
imprisoned in the yard of the church of St. Sava, in “Father Nojic’s
enclave”, surrounded on all sides by Albanian houses, stores and
checkpoints. It is estimated that at least 120,000 Albanians live in this
part of the city. The church is protected by five Greek KFOR soldiers.

Serbs rarely venture to the southern part of town. The trip is risky,
especially after recent events in Mitrovica in which two Albanians lost
their lives and many were seriously injured in clashes with KFOR troops.

“If they can’t get across the bridge and into the northern part of the city,
they’ll destroy the church,” says Father Svetislav Nojic, the head priest of
the church of St. Sava in the southern part of Mitrovica and the church of
St. George [Sv. Djordje] in Zvecan. “The message we got from the Shiptars
corresponds with the information we received from KFOR.”

Father Sveta [short form of Svetislav], as he is called in Mitrovica,
crosses from the southern part of Mitrovica into the northern part on almost
a daily basis. He also holds services in the monastery of Sokolica, not far
from Zvecan, as well as in the Mitrovica prison where Serbs accused of
crimes during the Kosovo tragedy are kept.

He travels from the church to the northern part of Mitrovica by tank or
armored transporter. Departure times of his “bus” are at 7 a.m., 10 a.m., 12
p.m., 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Delays are generally rare unless the caterpillar
treads snap. Then the trip is cancelled. It is also cancelled in the event
of increasingly frequent demonstrations by the Albanians who have been
successful in blocking the tanks and transporters on several occasions.

Travelling from the northern part to the southern part of the city isn’t
exactly a Sunday drive. Father Svetislav Nojic offers guarantees for our
safety. As much safety as he himself enjoys, anyway. You place your trust in
God and make your choice.

The “Reporter” team chose the “bus” at noon.

An enormous steel leviathan arrives. Inside it is dark and cold even before
the steel door slams shut.

At first neither faces nor clothes are discernable, only contours. In
addition to an escort team consisting of three Greek soldiers in the
leviathan, a driver and another soldier with a machine gun “controlling” the
surroundings through an opening in the roof, the other passengers besides us
are Father Bora and little Sasa Kuzmanovic, a five year-old boy who lives
with his grandmother and sister right next to the churchyard in south
Mitrovica.

The irregular roar of the motor and the sound of the treads tearing up the
asphalt cannot drown out the sound of the rapid beating of my own heart
which seems to me to be louder than both noises.

The road to the church, except in one spot where there is a small rise, is
relatively level. Not that you can really tell from inside the tank. Without
a word Father Bora hands a banana to little Sasa, who makes this trip at
least several times each day. The boy gives him a look of gratitude. There
is no talking because the soldier in touch with his base by radio can barely
what they are saying over the noise of the leviathan.

After a ten minute or so ride, the motor stops roaring. One of the soldiers
accidentally bangs his rifle against steel and the sound reverberates
painfully. The Greek soldier with the headphones says something into the
microphone. A few seconds of silence where nothing moves; then the steel
door opens with the help of a hydraulic pump.

We are in the yard of the church of St. Sava. The yard is huge. A structure
resembling a fence partially obstructs the view of the street in front of
the church, the row of stores with their crowded displays, the people going
about their business without looking this way.

A two-story house stands to the left of the church which dominates the yard.
On the right side is the old church residence hall and a tent occupied
around the clock by the Greek soldiers who protect the church. Before the
Greeks came, the church was protected by French and Italian troops.

There is also an old cemetery here where Mitrovica Serbs were buried before
1918. It is neglected and, located right next to the street fence, it looks
a little like a garden.

Twelve Serbs live in the churchyard. These are the priests Svetislav Nojic,
Borislav Kevkic and Velimir Stojanovic and their families. Little Sasa and
his two relatives and the widow Ivanka Belovic Lola live right next to the
churchyard.

“Born in Trepca near Berane [Montenegro]. When I married, I came here. I had
no children. My husband died 14 years ago and now I am all alone,” says Lola
almost weeping. “If I did not have these here, I don’t know what I would
do,” she motions with her hand toward the Nojices.

We are guests of the family of Father Sveta Nojic. He lives in his home in
the churchyard with his wife, Slobodanka, and their two daughters, Snezana
and Slavica. Snezana works in the Serbian Fund for Social Health Insurance.
Slavica works in a school for special children. Both work in northern
Mitrovica, of course. They take the “taxi tank” to work. At least three
times a week.

“At least we have free transportation,” says Snezana with a laugh. “It’s
true that we are denied the right to live but we have transportation!”

A congenial family atmosphere in the Nojic home. Raisins, apples and
crackers are served on the table... We drink wormwood liqueur and superb
black coffee. They laugh while they talk but, nevertheless, their faces are
sad. Laughter helps them stay sane.

“Don’t get excited but the Shiptars are in the yard.” Only two weeks ago
Slavica told her sister this by telephone without panic.

Even today, as she narrates what happened, Slavica maintains a neutral
expression the whole time.

It was during the last days of January during what were perhaps the most
intense Albanian demonstrations in the southern part of the city. After
unsuccessful attempts to force their way into the northern part of the city,
the Albanians remembered the church again. Father Sveta and Snezana were in
the northern part of the city at the time; Slavica and Slobodanka were in
the southern part, in the yard of the church of St. Sava.

Somewhere around three o’clock, Slavica and Slobodanka noticed through the
window of their living room that the Albanians were attacking the barricades
placed at the entrance to the yard by the Greek soldiers. The five soldiers
were resisting the attacks of several hundred Albanians. At one point
several Albanians came within several meters of the windows of the priest’s
residence.

French reinforcements arrived and began shooting rubber bullets. Who knows
how things would have ended if the Greeks had not begun firing live
ammunition into the air.

“It was no time for panic. More than anything I was afraid for Dad and
Snezana because we heard they were trapped in a transporter in the southern
part of the city. They announced that we would be evacuated but KFOR’s tanks
were blocked, too. I told Mom: Quit your panicking or I’m going out into
that yard no matter what,” says Slavica.

The evacuation took place four hours later with assurances that the church,
too, would be protected.

Slobodanka sits next to Father Sveta and wrings her hands.

She starts to say something, then changes her mind. Then changes it once
again:

“Children, it was like staring Death in the face. We only prayed to God, for
ourselves and to save the church. I thought, we are beyond help. And so I
took this cross” - she takes the relic from the cabinet - “I came here to
the window and I prayed to God.”

Then she begins to weep.

For months they have lived under concentration camp-like conditions. A few
meters beyond the fence which separates the yard from the street there are
stores. None of them can remember the last time they could buy anything in
them. They do their shopping- in the northern part of Mitrovica.

“And there were, you know, some days when it was too dangerous to make the
trip and we just ate what we could find. If we could find something. It’s
happened several times, a few days at a time,” adds Slobodanka, wiping her
tears and looking out the window toward the gate and the street from which
the Albanians forced their way into the yard.

In general, all of them glanced at the street quite often.

When they returned, after five days spend in a barracks, to the church and
to their home, the memory of the break in into the yard vanished in an
instant. Like a nightmare. Only the four of them know very well it was no
nightmare. It is the specter which has haunted them for more than a year and
will probably continue to haunt them to the end. Perhaps for the rest of
their lives.

“I am closer to the end of my days than I am to the beginning but what will
happen to my children and my church,” Father Sveta leans forward towards us.

His hands move on the table but he speaks in a calm, soft voice almost as if
holding a sermon.

He is 63 years old. From Stimlje by birth and his entire family are
refugees.

“I see that no one likes refugees. How long can we keep running away. If we
leave, the church will be destroyed. Everyone has turned their back to us.
The world, Belgrade, the people from northern Mitrovica. They just don’t
care. I have already transferred some of the more valuable church books to
Zvecan. The Gospel, the hagiography, the church records. We still have not
taken down the icons from the iconostasis,” says Father Sveta as his gaze
rests outside the window.

He continues speaking softly. For a moment I wonder if it is because of the
three bypasses. Then I wonder if he is saving his voice for holy liturgy.
Which he continues to perform regularly even when he is the only person
present.

In slightly more than one year, only one christening has taken place here.
Church visits by believers are exceedingly rare. No one wants to take the
risk and more and more people attend services at the church in Zvecan.

"They’ve tailored a difficult fate for us. The Serbs here are poor folk
whose voice no one hears. And this, too, will pass when the great powers
reach an agreement. That’s how it is...” Father Sveta rises and dons his
priest’s mantle as we head to the church.

The church is one of the most beautiful in Kosovo and its construction took
17 years to complete. The foundations were consecrated in 1896 and Easter
liturgy was served here in 1913.

The church is built solely of hewn stone, without a gram of iron in the
structure. It has floor heating. A beautiful choir gallery. An iconostasis
which leaves one breathless.


A Serb priest from Mitrovica enters an armoured vehicle to go from the Serbian part of Mitrovica to his house near the St. Sava's church in the Albanian quarter

But there are no believers.

There are six other Serb souls in this part of the city in addition to those
who live in the churchyard or right next to it.

“I will sell my house if I can. What else can I do, I have no choice,” gasps
old Ivanka Belovic. “When they evacuated us I flew like an arrow but I just
can’t do that any more; I can’t.”

“This is my house, my church and my country and I want to be able to live
here normally. I am not asking this of either KFOR or the Albanians; I am
asking this of our government. Whether those of us in the yard are heroes or
fools is our private business,” says Snezana upon parting. And she laughs
again.

Little Sasa, who is helping a Greek soldier carry coal to the tent in the
yard, also smiles as he waves to us.

As we depart, the priest’s wife also says goodbye to us with a smile. And
then looks out the window. Her shoulders drop and as she kisses me three
times on the cheeks [a traditional Serb greeting], she quietly whispers.
Almost begs.

“Stop by again, children, in the name of God!"

It is as if their smiles are the key to survival in the yard which is home
to the forgotten Serbs.

The tank roars in preparation for the return. Same procedure. And a stone in
the pit of my stomach. And then, just before we start out, we hear the bells
ringing from the bell tower of the church of St. Sava.

After a ten minute drive we are back at our station of origin.

“Oh, man, this went well,” I mutter to myself as I jump from the steel
platform to the asphalt below, barely able to contain myself from doing a
little Montenegrin folk dance or Indian dance of sorts on the spot. Instead,
I stretch casually. And observe the muddy street crowded with dogs, people
and tanks. At that moment northern Mitrovica looked like the most beautiful
city in the world to me.

Slavisa Lekic

Prison priest

Since the opening of the prison in the northern part of Mitrovica, where
mostly Serb prisoners are detained, Father Svetislav Nojic has been the
official prison priest. Once a week, on Thursday or Friday, he conducts
services in the prison.

At first the service was two hours long but now it has been reduced to 45
minutes.

At first he was not searched when entering the prison but now a search is
mandatory.

At first the prisoners did not trust him but now they all have full
confidence in him.

For the most part, he consoles them and gives them confession. What they
tell him remains between them and God. Some repent.

“There is no sin which transcends the mercy of God,” says Father Svetislav.

The prison priest christened Albanian prisoner Ljuljzim Ademi, his wife and
two daughters in the prison. Ljuljzim was accused of collaborating with the
Serbs and that was the reason he chose to be christened. Though some
suggested he take the name Draza Mihajlovic [after Draza Mihailovic, the
leader of Chetniks, the Monarchist Serb resistance fighters in WWII, who was
caught and executed by victorious Communist partisans in 1945], his
godfather, a Serb, chose the name Radoslav Ademovic.

Two days after the christening, Ljuljzim, that is, Radoslav, escaped from
prison.

Many others from the priest’s flock have also flown the coop.

On another occasion, several prisoners escaped together, again after a visit
by the priest.

The next time he visited the prison, the priest held the following sermon:

“Now I am going to Banja for a little rest. When I come back, I don’t want
to see any of you here. Amen.”

Translated by S. Lazovic (Feb. 22, 2001)


church amidst the barbed wire