PRISTINA, YUGOSLAVIA — The medieval frescoes that decorate the most sacred shrine of the Serbian Orthodox Church point to a belligerent history: The saints here are ready for war.
Bedecked with armor, they stare down from aged walls, fingering swords, maces, and spears. This was the seat of the Serb patriarch at Pec, in a troubled province called Kosovo.
Today Serbs still consider Kosovo their Holy Land, and Pec their Jerusalem. And the ethos of the militant frescoes is being tested again.
Conflict between majority ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs in Kosovo has fluctuated for decades. Now a spate of explosions and murders has made tensions soar. The US has about 500 troops nearby in Macedonia - pointing up the area's importance: Any conflict could envelop Kosovo and spread war again throughout the Balkans.
Albanians and Serbs alike describe the emergence of a "third force" of young, educated Albanians who chafe under repressive Serb rule and who are impatient with their leaders' policy of "peaceful resistance."
Ethnic Albanians - who make up more than 90 percent of the population - want self-rule and their own state. But Serb leaders in Belgrade - led by President Slobodan Milosevic, who used the myths of Serbia's saint warriors and historic battles to engineer his rise to power in the late 1980s - refuse to consider ceding any part of this "cradle" of their civilization.
Serbs have maintained their grip with a strong and brutal police presence. According to figures used in a United States State Department human rights report, 16 Albanians were killed by Serb authorities last year, and 4,000 people were beaten by police in 1994.
But as Serb numbers dwindle to just 7.5 percent of the population of 2.1 million - with more leaving Kosovo each day - some former Serb hard-liners are calling for peaceful coexistence.
"Frustration is growing, because people see a solution coming to Bosnia. The Albanians feel that Kosovo has been forgotten by the Dayton peace agreement, and they don't want the world to walk away and leave them in the clutches of the Serbs," says a Western diplomat in Belgrade.
Since President Milosevic revoked Kosovo's semiautonomous status in 1989, extending Serb authority, a group of ethnic Albanians have set up a "shadow" government and declared Kosovo independent. They built parallel systems of education, health, taxes, and even bus lines to those of the Serbs. No government has recognized them, and the result has been further alienation.
"A lot of Albanians have been brought up in a separate environment that encourages extremism," the diplomat says.
The recent violence in Kosovo began three months ago, when an Albanian was reportedly killed by Serbs. Two days later, five explosions harmlessly rocked Serb refugee camps in the province. A previously unknown group, the Albanian Liberation Army, claimed responsibility and said the blasts were a "warning."
When a Serb policeman shot dead an Albanian student in April, in the Kosovo capital of Pristina, the stakes rose. The next day a handful of separate, simultaneous attacks - all within one hour - left two Serb policemen, a prisoner, and two Serb refugees dead.
The Albanian Liberation Army again claimed responsibility in a faxed message to an Albanian-language newspaper in Switzerland.
The unprecedented severity and professionalism of the attacks has caused terror among Serbs, even though the Serb press - usually thick with anti-Albanian diatribes - has played down the attacks. Albanian leaders have also tried to calm tensions.
"Everyone who chooses terror and violence now, they have chosen the right moment: after the Dayton peace accord, after the war [in Bosnia], when people are tired," says Ylber Hysa, the political editor of the Kosovo Albanian magazine Koha. "Two years ago these killings would have provoked a war. But the Serb regime does not want to show the world there is a problem in the south that is open and unsolved."
That problem is manifest everywhere in this poor province. Kosovo is one of the most fertile areas of the former Yugoslavia. But farmers still work the soil barefoot under the late spring sun, moving slowly across fields in long lines with spades.
Malnourishment is sometimes obvious, and evidence of tension is plain despite the pastoral landscape. Road signs in the Cyrillic script used by Serbs are often defaced with spray paint. Satellite dishes attached to many homes pick up the news from the Albanian capital, Tirana.
"The Serb authorities are scared. The young Albanians are frustrated and can't integrate themselves into Serbia anymore. There is no way forward, and no way back," says Milos Vasic, a founder of the independent Belgrade magazine Vreme.
Leaders of the shadow "government," such as Rehmi Agani, the vice president of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) party, say that radical views are growing.
"Militarism is one the rise, it's true, but it's a direct consequence of the fact that there have been no changes, no moves forward," Mr. Agani says. "There will be no lasting peace in this region without appropriate status for Albanians."
But after years of demands by Kosovo Albanians for complete independence from Serbia, any compromise position - even in the interest of averting war - is difficult to justify.
For the minority Serb side, the problem is the same. Some hard-liners still prefer a military solution - as long as they win. Often they invoke the armed saints of the church and the duty of Serbs to defend the Serb Holy Land from the mostly Muslim Albanians.
One Serb declared that if the Serb Army and police forces were deployed, "it would be over in 24 hours," and all the Albanians would flee.
Some Serbs are not convinced that military action would solve the problem. Yugoslav leaders tried to "improve" the ethnic balance of the province in the 1920s by importing Serbs and Montenegrins, but their fate since then has seesawed with the whim of regimes in Belgrade.
For the first time now, despite Kosovo's "sacred" Serb history, Serb moderates are emerging. Recognizing that the Albanian desire for independence is a war aim and not a negotiating position, Momcilo Trajkovic is looking for common ground.
As a former vice president of Yugoslavia and head of the Serbian Movement of Resistance, he has written to Milosevic and invited him to visit Kosovo to explain his plans for a solution. For the vastly outnumbered Serbs, he told the president, there is only one path to peace.
"If the Serbs do not budge, then Albanias will try to achieve their aims through war, which would be a disaster for all," he says. "Albanians are the reality in Kosovo, and without life together on an equal footing, there will be no solution. If Milosevic accepts this, it would be a beginning."
But in the past year Milosevic has let down beleaguered Serbs living in Croatia and Sarajevo who were forced from their homes. Few Serbs doubt that Kosovo could be next.
"Betrayal is possible," Mr. Trajkovic says. "But it could be more subtle, drop by drop, until finally there will be no more Serbs. It is what we fear most - that is why we ask Milosevic to come urgently."
In 1989 the president himself laid down his plans for a Greater Serbia in a broad field near Pristina, at the site of the Battle of Kosovo. Exactly six centuries after Serbs were defeated there by the Turkish Army, Milosevic stirred the militant, nationalist myths of Serb history.
The Serb imperative is written on a memorial at the battle site in Kosovo. Today Serbs laugh at the mention of their Holy Land here - the emotional pull seems to vary from Serb to Serb. But they say that no one wants to be remembered for giving up Jerusalem.
For the Albanians, that sentiment could mean more conflict before there is peace.
The words of the memorial are ominous: "Whoever is a Serb and of Serb origin, and does not come to fight in Kosovo, may he not have any descendants, neither male nor female...."