AFP – The bells of Pristina’s sole Orthodox Church toll for a liturgy that will bring brief spiritual peace to a small group of Serbs, remaining members of a dwindling community in Kosovo, five years after it broke away from Serbia.
At the Saint Nicolas church, three elderly Serbs listen to the mass held in a little corridor along the nave, too big and too cold for so few people.
“Only 53 out of 45,000 Serbs who lived in Pristina before 1999 have stayed here, mostly elderly people,” said priest Darko Marinkovic.
After the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that forced out Belgrade security forces fighting pro-independence ethnic Albanian guerrillas from Kosovo, some 200,000 Serbs fled the territory fearing reprisal attacks by extremists.
Most of them found new homes in Serbia and have no desire to return to ethnic Albanian majority Kosovo, which proclaimed independence on February 17, 2008.
Five years on, about 120,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo. A third of them live in the north of the territory near Serbia and refuse to recognise the ethnic Albanian authorities. The others live in villages scattered throughout Kosovo, surrounded by ethnic Albanians.
Regular churchgoer Snezana Bursanovic, a retired hospital worker in her late sixties, decided to stay in the capital Pristina even after her two children fled for Serbia.
She said never considered leaving her small downtown apartment. “I have lived here my entire life.”
Her neighbours, all ethnic Albanians, “are nice” to her and sometimes invite her over for tea, she said.
But when she was diagnosed with cancer and needed chemotherapy recently, she decided to put her medical care in the hands of Serbian doctors.
“I do not trust Albanian doctors,” she said quietly.
Bursanovic now regularly travels to the southern Serbian town of Nis, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Pristina, for her treatment.
The bus fare for each trip costs her 15 euros ($20) of her 300-euro monthly pension — which she receives from the government in Belgrade.
Bursanovic says she feels closely connected to Serbia. She watches Serbian state television and occasionally meets up with fellow Serbs at the Centre for Peace and Tolerance to chat over a cup of coffee or to read newspapers in their own language.
Serbian-language dailies are not for sale in the capital or in other towns with an Albanian majority, and Bursanovic says she feels pessimistic about her community’s future in Kosovo.
“Soon there will be no one” from the Serb community left in Pristina, Bursanovic told AFP.
For Bursanovic, the only place she can find peace and comfort is in her church with Orthodox priests Marinkovic and Stevo Mitric.
The priests and their families live on the church grounds and say they only go out to buy food and take their children to kindergarten in the Serb-populated enclave of Gracanica, some 10 kilometres (six miles) from Pristina.
Marinkovic said the tiny Serb community feels less threatened nowadays as security has improved compared to the first post-conflict years.
But Pristina’s Serbs still feel isolated and have little contact with their neighbours, he said, adding that he avoids going out in the street in his cassock.
“It is better not to provoke” in the Muslim-majority territory of 1.8 million people, he said.
With just one other Serb family with children left in Pristina, the priest shares Bursanovic’s concern that the community will soon die out.
“We almost never see them and I am afraid that they will eventually give up living here,” he said.
“I am not sure myself if I can endure living like this for a long time,” he added.