I am finally going to talk about this monastery that I’ve been promising to discuss for the last several days. There has been so much that I felt like needed to get said on the subject of Kosovo before I came to this post that I’ve kept putting it off until now. I think that I was trying to stress the happiness that I felt there and convey my sincere belief that it is a place worth visiting that is no more dangerous than a walk to your local supermarket. This post is not to negate anything that has gone before, but rather I hope to expand on what I have said previously about the struggle that still pulsates below the surface. Old wounds are healing, and new wounds are healing as well, but in the end none of that will matter if they keep getting scratched at. In my opinion, fear is the primary cause of the itch.
When you go to Kosovo, you will notice that Albanians predominate in this country of roughly 2 million. According to most estimates, they make up around 90% of the population. Clearly, this is an Albanian region. Important to remember is that it has been an Albanian region for a very long time, going back over a thousand years, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. It was also, at times, a Serbian region. At times it was even a predominately Serbian region, and during one of those times it saw significant steps in the development of Serbian identity and culture. For two centuries, prior to the 14th century battle that led to the eventual domination of all of Serbia by the Ottoman Empire, Kosovo was the crown jewel of the Serbian crown. Monasteries and seminaries were constructed, many of which stand to this day as a testament to what is known as Old Serbia, a reminder of what Serbia had before the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Five hundred + years of foreign occupation gives a group of people a lot to think about, and once the Ottoman yoke was thrown off, Serbs were thrilled to finally have their Old Serbia back and desperately wanted it to be a step toward regaining other territories that had once made up a part of Greater Serbia, the boundaries of the old kingdom that had fallen to the Ottomans.
One problem with this was that times had changed and the Age of Empires was drawing to a close. Greater Serbia included territory that was populated by Croats, Bosniaks and Macedonians (to name a few), and these peoples were just as tired of being minorities in a greater state as Serbs were. Some wanted independence, others wanted to join nearby states with whom they shared linguistic and cultural affinity, and in the end the dream of rebuilding a Greater Serbia was simply unattainable. In many ways, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (and later the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) would be a way of compromising the goal of realizing a Greater Serbia, although that experiment itself would end in tragedy in the mid-1990s.
Another problem was that, even in Old Serbia, the situation on the ground was not what it had been in 1389. What had once been a wholly Christian land was now strongly Muslim, and whereas Serbs had once outnumbered their Albanian fellow Christians, the now-Muslim Albanians far outnumbered the Serbs. They, too, sought a right to decide their own fate, much like the Croats, Macedonians etc, but just as Yugoslavia would put those dreams on hold for other Slavs, the same was to be said for the Albanians. It would not be until after the breakup of Yugoslavia into its various independent republics and the rump state of Serbia and Montenegro (still called Yugoslavia until 2006) that Kosovo and its majority Albanian population would, as had the Slavs of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia (the last of which was allowed to leave without bloodshed), decide to take matters into their own hands.
Before this devolves into another history lesson, let me return to the present day and the situation in which Kosovo finds itself. As I mentioned, there are somewhere around 2 million people living in Kosovo, and 90% of them are ethnic Albanians. While that is a clear majority, there is an estimated 5-6% Serbian minority also living in Kosovo. If that sounds like a paltry figure, put it in its real context of around 100,000 people. It sounds like a lot more that way. This minority is dead set against an independent Kosovo, and they have the backing of the Republic of Serbia-their motherland and, as far as they are concerned, the legitimate authority in Kosovo. This is the reality of Kosovo. When you are there, you are walking around an independent country to one group of people, and breathing the air of the sovereign territory of Serbia to another. Even more interesting is the fact that, unless you enter Kosovo from Serbia, the Serbs consider your visit to Kosovo illegal. From their point of view, you have crossed into Serbia via an unrecognized international border (with Montenegro, Albania or Macedonia). If you wish to enter Central Serbia (or, according to those who recognize the independence of Kosovo, if you wish to enter Serbia), you will be turned away. I had the unhappy experience of learning this after I had already made plans to go back to Serbia (I had entered Kosovo through Macedonia), but the decidedly less unhappy experience of being denied entry onto the bus when I was still in Prizren, rather than having to cool my heels at the Serbian border and contemplate my current life choices.
So it was that when I visited the Gračanica monastery (ta-dah!), I found myself in the Serbian enclave of Gračanica where people spoke Serbian, went to Orthodox churches and would tell you, if you asked what country you were in at the moment, that you were in Serbia, you lunatic. And I’ll be dipped in chocolate and licked by kittens if it didn’t feel like that’s exactly where I was. The flags were Serbian. The signs were in Serbian. The people, as I say, spoke Serbian. There were even stickers and notices proclaiming Serbian unity. It was as though I had gone through a magical portal and stepped out of Kosovo and into Serbia, but I reminded myself immediately that Kosovo was precisely where I was. In a way, I had entered the fabled Old Serbia, even though it existed only as one of a few islands surrounded by an independent Kosovo with its own government, news organizations and, of course, politicians. But the people in that town believed with all of their hearts that they were in Serbia, and I was not about to be the fool that tried to tell them any differently.
After getting directions to the monastery, I began walking the wrong way entirely and considering the fact of where I found myself then. It would be a good ten minutes before I discovered that I was walking away from my destination, and during that time I had a fabulous conversation with myself. It was basically a monologue, I’m happy to say (I’m not that crazy), and it touched upon my impressions being in this town of Gračanica. Everyone seemed to be doing just fine here in this little Slavic bubble, and the idea that there was any conflict between Serbs and Albanians seemed exceptionally distant. I marveled at how well things seemed to be going, and as I asked for directions again and turned myself around (without doing the hokey pokey), I continued to wonder just where the oppressive atmosphere had gone. It was not until I neared the monastery that I realized what a foolish and naïve conversation I had just been having.
In the distance I saw a compound, which I assumed was somehow related to NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) that still has patrols and peacekeeping duties. That made sense, as I had read that Serbian enclaves were especially guarded by KFOR troops, but as I got closer I caught a glimpse of something distinctly church-like that appeared to be within the compound. As the minarets of Skopje once had, this sight soon ducked away behind some trees, and I managed to convince myself that it must be just past the compound after all. No, Peter, the monastery was the compound. No troops, no guards, just an old wall that had been lined with evil-looking razor wire. Not even just barbed wire, but razor wire. This is scary stuff. Having read online that Orthodox sites are guarded by KFOR soldiers, I might have been somewhat prepared, but it just seemed so strange. The ‘no guns’ sign at the entrance was really the last straw. No shorts, no cameras, no smoking and no guns. This was a new one on me.
It is easy to see what all of the fuss is about as soon as you walk inside. Constructed in 1321, in the heyday of Old Serbia, this monastery is one of the most important spiritual centers for the Serbs of Kosovo. Every inch of the interior walls painted with incredibly detailed icons and murals, it is a centuries-old tribute to the greatness of Serbia and the Orthodox faith. Many of these very treasures were also damaged during the Kosovo war of 1998-1999. The eyes of most depicted there have been scratched away, others are missing their entire faces. It is quite certainly a tragedy, and the Serbs of Gračanica are determined to protect it from further harm. All of a sudden, after walking around this gorgeous space, which provided a cool respite from the heat outside, I began to feel some of that oppression in the air. And it was not directed at Serbs by Albanians or at Albanians by Serbs, it was the simple and ancient oppression of fear.
Back in Prishtinë, I talked with my new Albanian friends about what I had seen that day. I mentioned going to Gračanica, and they were curious to know what I had thought. I talked about the razor wire, and the two of them visibly cringed.
‘It’s like they think we’re animals,’ Mikeshë said, her tone more hurt than angry.
‘What do they think we’re going to do?’ Burrë followed. ‘Do they think we’re going to try to attack it or something? It’s insulting to us that they would put that stuff up there.’
I understood how they felt, but I had to at least continue with what I had seen.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘it is insulting, but do you know what happened in there? All of the faces were scratched off.’ I think I shivered from the sheer unsettling memory of it. It was their turn to give a nod to understanding before launching a counterargument.
‘Yes, it’s very sad,’ Mikeshë said, ‘but that happened everywhere, to churches and to mosques. Both sides did those things, and yes, they were terrible, but that doesn’t happen anymore.’
In a place that is fought over because of a memory created in the national consciousness over six hundred years ago, a statement like that has very little meaning. Nevertheless, I understood her point.
‘It just makes us feel like we’re animals,’ she continued, and now her face showed sadness and disappointment alongside the anger that had begun to flare. And I began to understand.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it does make it seem like they view you as animals, but I think they’re scared.’
To my surprise, rather than argue that Albanians had more right to be scared of Serbs, they both nodded and agreed that they must be scared. This did not change their conviction that walling monasteries with razor wire was an insult, but they did concede that it was out of fear rather than outright hostility.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about that interaction. Of course I remembered reading about the horrible things done to mosques during the war, and I’ve since gone back and read a bit about how both sides lost precious staples of their culture and history. There is no doubt that the losses on the Albanian side were greater, not only in terms of damage to property and items of cultural and religious value, but also loss of life. Numbers get thrown around a lot in these discussions, but the figure that comes up with the most consistency is 10,000 ethnic Albanian civilians. You will remember charges of war crimes being levied against Serbian forces and leaders, and with evidence of mass graves in Kosovo and Serbia, it is difficult to imagine that everyone was innocent of this. However, it is important to note that the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) itself was accused of war crimes, although no one was ever convicted. Reprisals against Serbs continued long after the war had ended as well, and although the number of ethnic Albanian refugees dwarfs the Serbian equivalent at over one million against a quarter million, 250,000 people is no small number. Serbs and other non-Albanians were terrorized after the war, and those who did not flee Kosovo have become hardened. It is no surprise that the fear that drove over a million ethnic Albanians out of their homes is the same fear that drives the ca. 100,000 Serbs to line their precious monasteries with razor wire and pray that they are never a part of an Albanian state.
Leaving Prishtinë to head back to Slovenia, I noticed something strange about the multilingual road signs on the highway near one of the on-ramps. All over Kosovo the signs for various cities are given in Albanian and in Serbian (in some places also in Turkish). For the most part these signs were pristine, but the ones I saw at this particular spot outside of Prishtinë were very different. On all of them, the Serbian equivalents for city names had been scratched off, leaving only the Albanian. It reminded me of Bosnia, where I had seen the Cyrillic versions of signs spray-painted over to leave only Latin letters. It was a simple yet powerful message, just as it had been in Bosnia: this is our place, and we don’t want you here. I cannot blame people for this sentiment. Heaven and Earth both know full well the atrocities that ethnic Albanians (and Bosniaks and Croats) have suffered at the hands of radical Serbs. What is sad is that this act serves not only to blame the guilty but to frame the innocent. The removal of a name does not erase the hate, and it cannot erase the fear.
When you visit Kosovo, you will find a land that is still recovering from war. It is licking its wounds and rebuilding, but the struggle is still there. There is little to see of KFOR these days. I myself saw a KFOR jeep a grand total of four times (and three of those times it was the same one) in Prizren, and I never saw any sign of them in Prishtinë. If you go elsewhere, you are likely to find more, but the point is that the signs of the war are not in the guns of the KFOR soldiers. The signs of the war are not even in the damage suffered in smaller towns of central Kosovo that can still be seen today. The signs of the war are in the missing eyes of Christ and his apostles, in the ashes of a burned Qur’an, in the scratched out letters of a road sign and in the razor wire that decorates a house of God. These signs relate not to the last war, the war of little more than a decade ago. These signs are deeper because they represent the aftermath of a war fought over six hundred years ago-a war that it still being fought today in the hearts and minds of every citizen of Kosovo, whether Serb, Albanian or otherwise.
This war, long over for those who died but never forgotten by those who survived, is fought today not with bullets or with bombs, but with fear. It is the fear of what neighbours can do to one another and the fear of what children might see visited upon their fathers and mothers. It is the fear that, after six hundred years, nothing has changed. That holy war of 1389 rages on, and it is fear that fuels it. Sadly, fear is the most crippling enemy of all and the hardest to fight because it lives inside of us and tells us not that we’re weak or that we’re doomed, but that we’re right and that we’re entitled. That kind of fear has the power to push people beyond their human limits and convince them to do things that they would never do for any reward they could be offered. It is unquenchable, and yet it can only live on itself. It is therefore always seeking new victims to carry it through across the years and generations so that it can corrupt and destroy again and again. It is such fear that has done just this to both sides, and it is the fear that will have to be conquered before Kosovo will ever have lasting peace.