The Independent (UK) / www.independent.co.uk
After 1,000 years, terror forces Serbs out of their Kosovo village
By Andrew Buncombe in Velika Hoca
26 March 2000
History sits heavily in the Serb village of Velika Hoca. In this ancient community close to Prizren in south-west Kosovo, there are 13 churches â€“ stone-built, beautiful and full of priceless treasures. The oldest, the 12th century St Nicholas's, is said to date back to before the Serb Orthodox Church was granted autonomy from Greece.
The village itself, set deep at the bottom of a sloping valley, is thought to be at least 1,000 years old. As with many things here, no one really knows for certain. But history may be about to change for ever. The Serbs of Velika Hoca fear that after a millennium during which their ancestors occupied this village and farmed the land, they will be the generation that has to abandon it. At least 600 of the original 1,400 villagers have left within the last 12 months. They are unlikely to return.
"This is the most modern prison in the world. There is nowhere else like this ," said Vidosav Cukaric, 52, principal at the village primary school. "We cannot even go 500 metres outside of our village. Nato protects us, but only in the village. We have freedom but we cannot do anything." They are trapped. Surrounded by Dutch troops, it is virtually impossible for them to leave the village without serious risk of being attacked by Albanians. Even the 40 or so children who have passed primary school age can only go to secondary school in nearby Rahovec in an armed Kfor convoy. A truck picks them up and then returns them each day.
Apart from the teachers in the village school, no one has a wage- paying job. There is just one shop and the number of fields in which the farmers feel safe to work is not large. They survive on humanitarian aid.
So instead the people of Velika Hoca â€“ one of the largest 100 per cent Serb communities left in Kosovo â€“ spend their days idling away the time, sitting around in the village square, feeling increasingly resentful and bitter. Unlike the high-profile Serb community of Mitrovica, the Serbs of Velika Hoca receive no support from Belgrade.
"We feel terrible," said Mr Cukaric, sitting in the school staff room while the children thundered up and down in the playground outside. "We feel as though our own government has forgotten us. We feel we have been abandoned by everyone â€“ by the Serb government, by Nato. The local people do not care for politics, all they care about is survival."
Mr Cukaric and the other teachers believe they may last another year in such circumstances before they will be forced to leave â€“ the majority to Serbia, some to Montenegro. Unable to sell their homes in Velika Hoca and with only the most basic personal possessions, they would find themselves on the bottom rung of Serb society.
"People are leaving from day to day," he said. "When there are only a little number of people left and we feel unsafe we will be collected from here. If the international community is unable to solve the problems and create a multi-ethnic Kosovo in a year we have no hope to stay here."
What is happening in Velika Hoca has been happening across Kosovo since the United Nations Mission In Kosovo took charge last summer. Official estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Office for Security and Co-operation in Europe suggest that two-thirds of the 300,000 Serbs that were living in Kosovo this time last year have left. The inability to offer a safe environment for minority groups is seen as Nato's biggest failure in the province.
The anger of Kosovo Albanians that has been directed towards the villagers of Velika Hoca (two young men were killed while wood- cutting on the edge of the village last October) may in part be based on the belief that these Serbs were responsible for the massacres in a number of nearby Albanian villages. The villagers here deny that, insisting they only fought to "protect the village".
Either way the reprisals continue. Father Milenko, the village's Orthodox priest, who still holds services in eight of its 13 churches, said that a fortnight ago a church in a village in which he used to celebrate the Slavic liturgy was destroyed. "When man is having problems, the church is having problems," he said.
For all this, the thickly-bearded Fr Milenko, who has worked in the village for almost 15 years, is one of the loudest voices in favour of staying. "I have never thought about it and I would like to see a man who can predict the future. I am here and I will be here," he said.
"Humanitarian groups should be doing their jobs. I think it is their job to help people, not to help people to leave. Today another family left â€“ a grandmother and two children. I don't think they will ever come back. Their family has been here for 500 years."
There are those who agree with the priest. Sasa Goci, 26, used to work as a mechanic in Velika Hoca and the surrounding villages, importing parts from Serbia. Now, with no possibility of a job, he spends his time helping Fr Milenko and proudly showing the village's occasional visitors around its churches.
At St Nicholas's, up a track on the edge of the village, Mr Goci opened the heavy wooden door with a vast hand-made metal key that he said was the original.
Inside it was cool and silent and there were ancient fading icons hanging from the smooth stone walls. "I will never leave the village," said Mr Goci. "I cannot understand why anyone would."
Source: The Independent (UK) / www.independent.co.uk