ORAHOVAC, Yugoslavia, Aug. 15 (RNS)--Two weeks ago, a 75-year-old Serbian man took his three goats to a nearby hillside for an evening graze. That night, the goats returned alone.

All that was found of the elderly man was his cap and walking stick, said Ljubisa Vitoshevich, assigned here by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

One week ago, an empty house once occupied by a Serbian family was gutted by a suspicious fire. It was the fourth such suspected arson attack in this city's Serb quarter in the last 21/2 months.

In the face of such unrelenting pressure, it is less a wonder that 2,100 Serbs have left here in the last year than that 700 Serbs choose to keep on living in the embattled neighborhood.

One of the main reasons the Serbs remain is the Rev. Stefan Milenkovic, a 33-year-old monk who reluctantly left his monastery to work here as a parish priest.

``With a priest, we will stay here longer. It is a kind of spiritual shelter. It gives us courage,'' said Stefan Radic, 55, over a glass of lager beer in the courtyard of his small home. ``In times like this, people return to the church. When there is no one to help you, you go and pray to God.''

Radic, who tends the tomato plants in the church garden, was in a celebratory mood. The night before he had heard from a neighbor, a ham radio operator, that his daughter had given birth to a baby boy in Serbia proper. Lacking any telephones or reliable mail service, the amateur radio is the speediest form of communication between the Serb enclave and the world outside Kosovo.

After NATO-led troops took control of the region in June 1999, the returning majority Albanian Kosovars exacted revenge on the 250,000 Serbs living across the province. Through killings, beatings, abductions and arson, ethnic Albanians used the same tactics that had been used against them by Serbs before and during NATO's 78-day bombing campaign.

To date, an estimated 150,000 Serbs have left Kosovo. Most of them go to Serbia proper, finding it already burdened with ethnic Serb refugees from previous conflicts in the Balkans. Serbian Orthodox Church leaders, who regard Kosovo and its 1,400 religious sites as sacred land, are vigorously encouraging Serbs to stick it out in the province, where the majority Albanians are overwhelmingly Muslim.

When his bishop asked him to leave his post of abbott at a nearby monastery and begin serving in Orahovac's Church of the Holy Mother of God, Milenkovic was not happy at being thrust into the world.

``I am a monk but here I must live with the people,'' said Milenkovic, speaking through a jet black beard so thick it nearly obscures his mouth. ``I don't have as much time for my spiritual life, only late at night or early in the morning.''

In the monastery he would awaken between 2 and 3 a.m. for prayers.

For Milenkovic and other residents of the enclave, the most galling aspect of their existence is the lack of mobility. To leave the warren of narrow, cobblestoned streets lined with simple stone houses topped with red tile roofs is literally to court death. Inside the enclave, the Serbs are protected by coils of barbed wire and guarded by German soldiers in full combat gear. Outside the enclave, 50,000 ethnic Albanians live and work in this bustling, dusty market town.

Any Serb venturing into the town risks being recognized as such by Albanians, for whom memories of Serb violence are still raw. As an Orthodox priest with his flowing beard, waistlength ponytail, black cassock and pillbox hat, Milenkovic is an instant target for those who view the Serbian Orthodox Church as the heart and soul of Serb nationalism.

Milenkovic does not dare leave the enclave without an armed escort from KFOR, the NATO-led force of 47,000 troops in Kosovo.

``It is very hard to get an escort. For the last two months, I have been unable to get an escort,'' said Milenkovic, explaining he could not travel to his Monastery of the Holy Archangel, about a hour distant, to mark its feast day in late June.

In early July, a gunman firing from a car shot an unescorted Orthodox priest traveling to a funeral in a part of Kosovo not far from here. The priest is currently recovering from the attack in a medical unit at the American contingent's Camp Bondsteel, a spokesman for the diocese said.

The isolation of Orahovac's Serbs touches most aspects of their lives. They have no access to work and rely entirely on humanitarian food aid to survive. The schools that once served them are now off limits in the Albanian part of town.

Serbian-language broadcast television does not exist and few can afford what it would cost to buy a satellite dish and transponder. Even burying the dead is problematic. The old cemetery is located outside the enclave's walls, so burials take place on a crowded plot of land next to the church.

Boredom combined with intense feelings of helplessness make the Church of the Holy Mother of God a focal point of community life in a way it hasn't been for decades. Radic said up to 40 people attend weekday services. Nearly everyone came this Easter, the largest Orthodox holiday, he said. Those are big numbers for Serbs who, as church leaders note, are not known for their churchgoing and were profoundly secularized by 50 years of communist rule.

One Orahovac parishioner, who said she has been attending since she was 3 years old, noted that many people turned to God for help in controlling the uncontrollable.

``Two months ago, we heard that the humanitarian aid would stop,'' said Violetta Krstic, 29, an unemployed accountant who sings in the choir. ``We prayed very hard that this would not happen. Father Stefan devoted a lot of work praying for this. In the end, they found another sponsor.''

Aside from the food aid provided by the Yugoslav Red Cross and the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services, Krstic said the church is the most important source of subsistence. Before Milenkovic's arrival, a visiting priest celebrated the divine liturgy only on Sundays and holidays. After the war, with freedom of movement restricted, the bishop assigned Orahovac a full-time priest.

``It makes a big difference in those towns where there is a liturgy every day.

``When you hear the church bell every day, you know we are still here,'' said Krstic, a handsome woman who added that she tries to attend church daily to ask God for the return of her neighbors. ``I hope and believe and pray everyday that they will come back.''

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