DECANI, YUGOSLAVIA — For more than 600 years, the Visoki Decani monastery has endured invasions and other calamities.
Built in a remote, wind-washed valley by the dynasty that ruled the medieval Serbian kingdom, the monastery earned a reputation in local folklore as a mystical place that confers on those who enter the same power that has preserved it through the ages.
Even in modern times, local ethnic Albanians, who are mostly Muslim, joined Serbs in visiting the church.
But ethnic Albanians stopped visiting weeks ago, while most of the few Serbs who now come are fleeing a growing insurrection by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), rebels fighting for independence for the 2 million-strong ethnic Albanian majority of Kosovo Province after almost a decade of direct rule by Serbia.
About 70 Serb refugees are staying at a decrepit motel on a hillside above Visoki Decani. The only help they have received, they say, has been from the monks. There has been nothing from the authorities in nearby Pec, the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, or the international community.
Bosko Vulic says rebels burned down his home last week in the village of Crngane. "I will never go back," he says. "If the government wants to help, they should give me land somewhere else."
Like most ethnic Albanians, Serbs here also increasingly see little chance of averting an all-out conflict, which the United States and other governments worry could ignite a conflagration that would spread instability across Europe.
For the world's 10 million Serbs, the loss of Kosovo would be the ultimate historic catastrophe, far worse than the disastrous 1991-95 Serb uprisings in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina that Mr. Milosevic sponsored as part of a failed plan to create a "Greater Serbia."
Kosovo is cherished in Serbian mythology as the 12th-century birthplace of the Serbian Orthodox Church and medieval Serbian empire. In 1389, the kingdom was destroyed when a Serb-led Christian army was vanquished by the Turks just outside the capital of Pristina, ushering in 500 years of Muslim Ottoman rule of the Balkans.
Serbs, who are outnumbered 9 to 1 by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, claim that they have been reduced to a minority by forced migrations beginning in the 17th century and continuing until the years after World War II, and by illegal immigration from neighboring Albania.
Serbs say the founder of former Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, aggravated their plight by granting ethnic Albanians broad autonomy in 1974. That, they say, encouraged an ethnic Albanian independence movement to erupt in 1981.
Many Serbs, however, are coming to agree that the current crisis was ignited in 1987 by Milosevic, then a senior communist apparatchik, when he cast himself in a speech as the savior of Kosovo's Serbs. In doing so, he unleashed a Serbian nationalist fever that secured him the leadership of Serbia.
In 1989, Milosevic imposed direct rule from Belgrade. Since then, Serbian authorities have used arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings to maintain their grip on Kosovo, while ethnic Albanians created a parallel government.
A watershed occurred in 1995, when the US bowed to Milosevic by excluding Kosovo from the Dayton peace accords on Bosnia. Disillusioned, some ethnic Albanians formed the KLA, which first struck in 1996. The crisis deepened when Serbian police in February and March unleashed a crackdown on the KLA in the Drenica region in which more than 80 ethnic Albanians, including women and children, were killed, galvanizing support for the KLA.
Father Sava, one the monastery's 20 monks, blames both sides for pushing Kosovo toward all-out war, saying that "the problems cannot be solved by force by any side, not by the terrorism of the KLA nor by the excesses of the Serbian police." Unless the crisis is defused, he warns, Kosovo could be lost to Serbia.
"We cannot make these people believe that they can live in Yugoslavia by force. We need to make them feel that this country is their own," says Sava, a leader of the Serbian Resistance Movement, an anti-Milosevic group that seeks an accommodation with the ethnic Albanians short of independence.
But the sides appear to be moving toward war. In recent days, police have erected more sandbagged checkpoints on main routes and closed roads leading to the Albanian border following a clash with KLA fighters. They have also sealed off rebel-held villages in Drenica.
Efforts by the US, Western European powers, and Russia, which oppose independence for Kosovo, to promote a settlement are going nowhere, with moderate Albanian leaders and Belgrade refusing to compromise on the ground rules for negotiations.
The chances for talks are expected to be dealt a new blow this week, when Serbs are almost certain to vote against foreign mediation in a referendum called by Milosevic. Meanwhile, the rebels appear to be extending the areas under their control. Serb refugees and local ethnic Albanians say police no longer venture far from Pec, Djakovica, or Prizren, the main towns of the mountainous region bordering Albania.