The most revered place in Serbian mythology on the most celebrated date of the Serbian historical calendar was mostly empty today except for a brief ceremony by Orthodox churchmen under the watchful eye of NATO peacekeeping forces.
Ten years ago, at this same battle site, then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic looked over a large, adoring crowd and stoked the nationalist fervor that would bloody -- and ultimately tear apart -- the old Yugoslav federation.
"This [anniversary] differs from previous ones," Patriarch Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, said in a statement today. "There will be no hypocrisy in it, [and] in its celebration the godless leaders of our people will take no part."
Instead, British NATO helicopters circled above, tanks stood on approach roads, and a few troops sat quietly in an army vehicle observing this empty plateau, known as the Field of Blackbirds.
Serbian sovereignty in its hallowed Kosovo province is now a fiction, and its remaining Serbian residents are deeply anguished about their future. About half the Serbian population has fled in the two weeks since Serb-led Yugoslav forces pulled out of Kosovo and NATO troops began arriving, according to Western officials.
"Kosovo is almost lost," said Pavic Milorad, as he sat drinking beer at the 1389 Restaurant in the village of Gracanica -- a few miles from the battlefield in Kosovo Polje, where the Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Turks 610 years ago. "Milosevic used us."
The Milosevic-led Serbian government stripped the province of its autonomy in 1989, forced the political and cultural life of its ethnic Albanian majority underground and created police state structures to ensure the hegemony of Serbs and Serbian interests. Passive resistance by ethnic Albanians transmuted, slowly, into armed insurrection, and the ferocity of Belgrade's counterinsurgency tactics led to 78 days of NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia.
Milorad said he is awakening painfully to the price Kosovo Serbs have paid for Belgrade's policies. "I have regrets that I didn't speak against what was done," he said, adding that he feels trapped within the small Serbian enclave in Gracanica. "I want to stay -- if I can."
In the new Kosovo, the police checkpoints through which Serbs once sailed while ethnic Albanians were harassed are gone. Key industries and municipal buildings from which tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians were expelled are in the hands of Kosovo Liberation Army rebels. Serbian homes and monasteries have been burned and ransacked, and Serbian civilians and priests have been killed, kidnapped and beaten in a wave of revenge by some ethnic Albanians. Tens of thousands of Serbs are fleeing, and foreign troops patrol the streets -- a reality that Milosevic (now president of a Yugoslav federation in which Serbia is the dominant republic) said would never come to pass.
Across the street from where Milorad spoke, in a Serbian Orthodox monastery, Patriarch Pavle warned that the rage of ethnic Albanians and the indifference, as he sees it, of NATO peacekeepers to such violence over the past two weeks are combining to empty Kosovo of its Serbian population.
"The terror against our people and as well as their exodus from the province is increasing every day," read a letter signed by Patriarch Pavle, Bishop Artemije and Momcilo Trajkovic, president of the Serbian Resistance Movement, a small party of Kosovo Serbs opposed to both ethnic Albanian separatists and to Milosevic. "If nothing is done in the [near] future, we are seriously afraid that all Kosovo Serbs [will] be forced to leave the province. In that case, Kosovo would become an ethnically cleansed territory, which will be a serious blow and defeat to the international community."
Bishop Artemije said the letter was delivered Sunday to Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. official charged under the international peace accord with creating the civil conditions necessary to foster a peaceful, democratic, multiethnic Kosovo. The letter warned further that Serbs could soon lose confidence in the international forces here and Artemije said that Serbs may "openly refuse any further cooperation" with the United Nations and the NATO peacekeepers. Instead, he predicted, they would organize "their own self-defense as best they can."
Artemije spoke near the cross-shaped Gracanica chapel, which was built on the ruins of a church that has been the seat of Serbian Orthodox bishops for 779 years. This morning, at a ceremony rich with incense, nuns chanted under black veils in the chapel while outside a few worshipers pushed and kicked journalists.
Church leaders acknowledged that the Belgrade authorities had conducted a vicious campaign of forced deportation and murder of ethnic Albanians in the past three months. "The evil and suffering which the Albanian people endured in Kosovo was characterized as a product of the undemocratic regime of Slobodan Milosevic, and it is surely true," said Artemije, bishop of Raska and Prizren. "The Serbian Orthodox Church has officially demanded the resignation of Milosevic, not because he lost his war but because he made war."
Ten years ago today, Milosevic drew tens of thousands of people here. In the previous two years, he had shed his Communist clothing and dressed himself as the savior of the Serbian nation by exploiting the darker fears of its people about their neighbors in the multiethnic, six-republic Yugoslav federation.
"Today, six centuries later, we are again fighting battles, they are not armed battles, although such things cannot yet be excluded," Milosevic told the crowd in 1989.
It was a prophetic remark.
In his brutal pursuit of a Greater Serbia, to be carved from the other Yugoslav republics, Serbs would go on to fight and lose wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Kosovo, simmering with resentments as fighting raged elsewhere, would follow.
The Serbian province was nearly 90 percent ethnic Albanian in 1989, and Serbs felt oppressed in a place they regarded as their national wellspring. According to Serbian mythology, the template of the nation was formed here in 1389 in the glory of bloody sacrifice.
A range of emotions swelled among Serbs today as they celebrated the anniversary, and the contrition of the bishops contrasted with the continued defiance of some of the faithful.
"This is Serbian soil, and it is occupied," said Vojan, a 63-year-old worshiper at the monastery who would only give his first name. "It was also occupied during the reign of Hitler, and we shall liberate it again. Our army was not defeated."
CAPTION: Lazar Lalio lights candles in the Gracanica monastery after a service on the 610th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje, where the Turks defeated the Serbs, but Serbian mythology says the nation was formed.