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article imagePreaching from behind barbed wire in Kosovo's north

By Nicolas Gaudichet and Ismet Hajdari (AFP)     Jun 4, 2017 in World

Father Nenad Stojanovic is waiting for the day when he will celebrate Sunday service in Kosovo's northern city of Mitrovica "without police protection or barbed wire".

The Orthodox priest officiates at St. Sava Church in the Muslim-majority Albanian part of a city that is sharply divided along ethnic lines.

Just a dozen people congregate at the church on Sundays, including the Stojanovic family. The priest, his wife and their four children are the only Serbs living in the south of Mitrovica since the 1998-1999 Kosovo war.

The conflict left 13,000 dead, including 10,000 ethnic Albanians, and led to the unilateral secession of Kosovo from Serbia a decade later.

The fate of Kosovo's Serb minority and relations between Belgrade and its former province, whose independence has been recognised by more than 110 countries, remain central themes of a general election in Kosovo on June 11.

- Two different worlds -

Zivko Zivkovic, a 60-year-old mechanic, is among the handful of worshippers at St. Sava. He explains how, before going to the other side of the Ibar river to attend church, he makes the sign of the cross.

The bridge is guarded by international forces and each side is home to a different world, with its own currency, warrior statues and flag -- Serbian or Albanian.

St. Sava used to be the main church in the city of 80,000 people, including about 10,000 Serbs who have parallel institutions in the northern area such as their own mayor.

Cars there have Serbian number plates or none at all. Having Kosovan plates in the north is considered a risk, as are Serbian plates in Albanian-dominated areas.

St. Sava, which was set on fire during riots in 2004, was for more than a decade only opened for religious festivals, when the faithful would disembark from buses under high-level protection.

A new church of St. Dimitri was built in the north on a hill overlooking the city.

- 'Important in dark times' -

In 2016, after a year of renovations, Father Nenad was sent to St. Sava by his bishop -- a strong gesture for Serbs "for whom the Church has always been important in dark times," said the bearded 34-year-old priest.

"Considering that there are no Serbs living in the south, it is a success to have a few people" at Sunday services.

The church and presbytery are surrounded by walls lined with barbed wire and watched over by police. The family has never been threatened and the children play in the garden, but not with young Albanian neighbours.

Every day their father takes them to school on the other side of the city. He goes out in ordinary clothes after removing his cassock. The owners of a nearby grocery store know him and say every customer is welcome.

But the people running a car equipment shop opposite have never spoken to Father Nenad. "They cannot complain, they are protected by Kosovo's police, paid by our taxes," the shopkeeper said, without giving his name.

Raised in the north, this 50-year-old has only once travelled the 200-metre (660-foot) distance from his store across the river since the war ended -- to drive past his old house in ruins.

Serbs "enjoy greater freedom of movement than we do when we go to our cemetery in the north, to the graves of our relatives," said Afrim Dibrani, a 31-year-old construction worker.

- 'Lack of interaction' -

"The biggest problem is the lack of interaction," said Father Nenad.

The divisions are particularly stark 90 kilometres (56 miles) to the south at the Visoki Decani monastery, a symbol of Serbian Orthodoxy.

In a sign of persistent tension between the two communities, the white-marbled monastery, richly decorated with 14th century frescoes, is accessed through barriers and strict security checks.

Home to 20 monks, it is the only religious site in Kosovo still protected by NATO soldiers, who in early 2016 intercepted four men travelling nearby in a car stuffed with weapons.

The monastery's Father Petar said that local residents of Decani do not visit because "people are afraid" of what others will say about them.

But, underscoring the divide, local historian Selim Lokaj, 70, responds that responsibility lies with the monks. "The whole world has the right to visit the monastery, except us," he told AFP, referring to the area's ethnic Albanian residents.

With the support of local authorities, he organised demonstrations to return agricultural land surrounding the monastery to the people.

Decani is the stronghold of controversial ex-guerrilla Ramush Haradinaj. Celebrated as a hero at home and known as "Rambo" for his stocky build and military prowess, he is considered a war criminal by Serbs.

After the elections, he could become Kosovo's prime minister for a second time.

St Sava church seen through barbed wire in the town of Mitrovica on May 7  2017 in the Albanian part...
St Sava church seen through barbed wire in the town of Mitrovica on May 7, 2017 in the Albanian part of a city that is sharply divided along ethnic lines

"Without exchanges, we often arrive at the wrong conclusions about each other," said Father Nenad, who wants to learn to speak better Albanian.

The priest has Kosovan identity papers in addition to his Serbian documents. Which does he use? "It depends who checks."

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