"Crucified Kosovo" was how Alexander Melnik, president of the Russian St Andrew's Foundation, called the province at a recent RIA Novosti press conference dedicated to a humanitarian visit made by a foundation delegation to Kosovo timed to coincide with Orthodox Christmas. The mission aimed to bring information about the Serbian population's situation in the region into the public domain.
We visited small Serbian settlements that cannot be called anything but modern ghettos, and saw the remaining Orthodox churches, Mr Melnik said. The Serbian province has witnessed a drastic decline in the Serbian population: after the events of summer 1999, almost 30,000 Serbs and Romas left Kosovo in the first wave, while a few months later the total number of refugees had exceeded 250,000.
Today, Serbs are concentrated in a few districts, while large cities, with the exception of Mitrovci, are home to almost no Serbs at all. Other towns, such as Prizran, Gnilan, Orahovec have only scattered groups.
Obilic, where 6,000 Serbs used to live, now has only about 100, who can only move around the city escorted by KFOR servicemen.
Moreover, the small Serbian population in Kosovo is doomed to unemployment and the only way they can survive is to work on small plots of farmland.
The settlement of Gorazhdevac, which is inhabited by about 1,000 Serbs, does not have a single doctor or a paramedic. When on August 1, 2003, a child was wounded in the leg by Albanian gangsters, instead of surgery, his leg was put in plaster.
The delegation visited the Pec Patriarchy Monastery, founded in the 13th century and famous worldwide. There, in a triple ring of guards, 23 nuns continue their service. The Patriarchy has been the residence of Serbian Orthodox Church patriarchs for almost 700 years. The monastery is one of the last remaining Serb houses of worship, as Albanians have destroyed 117 monasteries and churches in Kosovo during KFOR's deployment there. The monastery's guards have been attacked many times and their checkpoint is riddled with bullet holes, which slides at the press conference graphically showed. The traces of gunfire are also visible on the centuries-old monastery walls. Before 1999, the town of Pec, in the vicinity of which the monastery is situated, had a population of 32,000 Serbs, but now only a few dozen are left.
The Russian delegation also visited the capital of Kosovo, Pristina. Before the NATO air strikes in 1999, there were 20,000 Serbs in the city. Today, the 150 Serbs that remain in Pristina are gathered in a ghetto in one block of flats. They are guarded by KFOR troops around the clock. Ethnic Serbs, even deputies of the "multi-ethnic Kosovo parliament" that present Serbs in Skupstina, can only move around when escorted by UN troops. Everyone in the community is unemployed. Twice a week the guards take them to a shop in Mitrovica to do their shopping and escort them back. Elderly people over the age of 65 receive a UN allowance of 30 euros a month (a loaf of bread costs 0.5euro). Often there is no electricity and, as the houses are equipped with electric stoves, inhabitants cannot prepare hot food. Even basic medical assistance is not provided. If someone dies, funerals are a problem, as people cannot bury the deceased in a proper way, because they fear that the grave will be desecrated or that they themselves will be attacked during the funeral.
The press conference released a memorandum from the Serbian Orthodox Church about the situation in Kosovo, which pointed out that the destruction of Serbian Orthodox churches, monasteries, cemeteries and cultural monuments is part of a greater Albanian strategy aimed at drastically changing demography, culture and history in Kosovo.
Peace and stability cannot be established for one ethnic group alone, members of the Russian delegation pointed out at the press conference. The foundation believes that Kosovo should duly observe the rights of ethnic minorities and preserve the cultural and historical heritage of world importance. It urges public organisations to take part in preserving and restoring Orthodox churches and Kosovo, as well as to render moral and financial support to Serbs that, despite everything, continue to live in the province.
In addition, during the talks between the foundation delegation with hierarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church, representatives of Serbian community and leaders of the UN mission in Kosovo, the parties achieved general agreements on rendering assistance to Serbian children and Orthodox communities, while they also worked out practical measures for public organisations from different countries.
The foundation intends to report on the critical situation of the Kosovo Serbs at the next session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Federation Council member and member of the foundation's board, Sergei Shcheblygin announced.
A few words about the foundation itself. It was founded in 1992 and was named after St Andrew, the apostle, one of Christ's first and closest disciples. He is the patron saint of Russia and Scotland. The foundation promotes awakening spiritual values in people connected to their history and culture. Its activities are based on combining traditional Russian values with the dialogue between civilisations, believing that this exchange of ideas between peoples and states is impossible without mutual respect and recognition of each culture's values.