The war was ending, but police and paramilitary officers were torching buildings. Afraid of being burned alive, ethnic Albanians in this small Kosovo town fled their homes, cowering in the woods for a rainy, seemingly endless night.
Then, winding down a wooded lane, came two monks in a white van from the cloistered and ancient Serbian Orthodox monastery of Visoki Decani. "Come with us," they said. "We will keep you safe."
"Without them," said 58-year-old Albanian painter and art teacher Nimon Lokaj, "my whole family would be dead."
In the ashes of postwar Kosovo, filled with accounts of brutality and hate, the monks' story is a rare tale of courage and mercy. Ignoring their own fears in the panicked final days before the Serb retreat, they may have saved as many as 150 ethnic Albanians.
Now that some Albanian Kosovars are returning to charred ruins with vengeance in their hearts, it is frightened Serbs and Gypsies turning to the monks for refuge.
The 20 robed and bearded monks at Decani had openly criticized Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's attempts to muscle ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo long before their Church's recent call for the resignation of Milosevic.
By June 12, a peace deal had been cut, NATO troops had begun to move into Kosovo and Italian troops were soon expected in Decani.
"The Serbs were setting all the houses and our apartment building on fire," said Imer Lokaj, 60, a school principal. "They wanted to burn us alive."
By 10 pm that Saturday, at least a dozen families were crouching among the trees and bushes of their village, afraid to talk lest the Serbs detect them. But with daylight, Father Sava and Father Iguman came down from the monastery.
"They were scared, too," said Fatmire Lokaj, 46, Imer's wife. "We saw them and went to them. We all looked straight ahead, the priests and us, because we were scared to look at the Serbs."
Vanload after vanload, the hunted civilians of Decani stole up to the monastery, and sanctuary.
In the 660 years that the monks of Visoki Decani have padded across the paving stones and soft, green lawns of their walled oasis, evil has been a frequent neighbor. Serbs and Albanians took turns with a violent upper hand. Throughout those generations, the monks sheltered the oppressed and, in return, were spared the death and destruction surrounding them.
"Until now, we hoped Albanians and Serbs could live together," the abbot said. "But the situation gets more complicated."
Indeed, at the historical seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church about 10 miles north in Pec, the patriarchate is jammed with the cars of about 100 families now dependent on food packages from aid agencies. Most are simply using the stone walls and NATO troops outside as a shield against the uneasiness beyond.
The monks in Decani, where an Italian tank and armored personnel carriers stand guard, say they never thought of leaving.
"Throughout history both Serbs and Albanians living in this area protected the monastery from harm," Abbot Theodosie said. "Albanians living here now are proud of this, and I am sure they will continue in the same spirit ... They feel like this monastery is their home."
Now others have sought refuge there. A Gypsy woman said she sought safety with the monks because she had been swept out of the village by threats from the ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army. A Serb man volunteered a typed note dated June 10 -- when the NATO march into Kosovo was imminent -- which he said his Decani neighbors signed, affirming that he had done nothing to hurt Albanians during the war.
"But I am still afraid," he said, making a throat-slashing motion.
Hatred still simmers in Decani. Nimon Lokaj's 24-year-old son, Artan, said he will always be grateful to the brothers at Visoki Decani. Yes, he said, he knows they are Serbs. "But this action by a few Serbs does not change how we think about most Serbs," he said. "They have done terrible things here, and we know most of them are that way."
Abbot Theodosie said the violence committed in the latest attempt to make Kosovo more Serbian was the work of "godless people."
"Our mission is fighting against evil," the abbot said. "I think now we will have more of a job to do."
DECANI, Yugoslavia, June 17 (AP) -- When withdrawing Serb forces pillaged this southwest Kosovo town, the abbot of the Serbian Orthodox monastery sheltered scores of ethnic Albanian villagers within the 14th-century building's stone walls.
On Thursday, it was still sheltering frightened people. But this time they were Serb monks and townspeople, fearful of violence at the hands of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army.
Local Albanians remembered the monastery's courage and kindness and vowed to protect those inside. "If they are going to kill them, they must kill us first," an ethnic Albanian villager, Shaban Bruqi, said of the monks. "They saved us."
From Saturday to Monday, when Serb soldiers went on a final rampage of burning, looting and raping in western Kosovo, the monastery's abbot made its green grounds an oasis of peace for Serb and ethnic Albanian residents alike.
It was a rare act in Kosovo. Faith and nation are almost one and the same in Serbia, for both predominantly Serbian Orthodox Serbs and predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanians.
"They were honest people of all faiths and nations," the Abbot Theodosia said Thursday as black-robed monks around him hacked at weeds and pushed wheelbarrows. "It was the Christian thing to do. It was the human thing to do."
The town outside the monastery held about 6,000 ethnic Albanians and 700 Serbs before the war. Fighting that started months before the NATO bombing campaign chased out all but 350 of the ethnic Albanians and reduced their mosque to ruins.
On June 11, with the peace accord signed, armed Serbs broke into the homes of the remaining ethnic Albanian villagers, robbing them, beating both women and men, and threatening women at gunpoint with rape.
"I told the soldier, 'Here, you can have my five dinars [a few cents], just don't kill me and my father,"' 8-year-old Duresa Malaj said, sitting on her father's lap in one of the buildings still standing in Decani. "He took my money."
The abbot had helped the ethnic Albanians throughout the fighting, giving them food, going to their homes and stopping them on the streets to check on their wellbeing.
Saturday, after the rampage of the previous night, he sent for the threatened families, dispatching cars to fetch 150 ethnic Albanians and bring them to shelter inside the monastery's walls.
In the town, monks took up positions outside the gated courtyards of those ethnic Albanian families who stayed in their homes. When Serb attackers came looking for ethnic Albanians, the monks told them there were none, the villagers said.
Families cowered inside the monastery and their homes for three days, while a Serb woman from the town guided Serb fighters looking for homes to burn.
Serb fighters appeared at the arched gate of the monastery one day only to tell the monks blocking their way that they were there to pray for forgiveness for what they had done.
DECANI, June 16 -- As Serb forces withdrew from western Kosovo, some of them burning and looting as they retreated, Father Iguman and Father Sava moved among them, asking them to spare the houses of their neighbors and bringing terrified Albanians here, to this revered Serbian Orthodox monastery near Pec.
"They are the best people you can ever see," said Venera Lokaj. "They are people of God. They heard Decani was burning, and they came to search for people. They found us there in the open, with everything burning, and they told us, 'We are blessed to see you alive. Please come with us. Please come to the monastery."'
Miss Lokaj is an Albanian, one of the 200 or so who have taken refuge in this monastery, under cooling trees, retrieved from misery by the fathers here.
She had lived in nearby Pec, which was destroyed by Serb forces and paramilitaries in their rampage of revenge when NATO began bombing Yugoslavia in March. She moved with her father, Nimon, to Decani, because it had already been destroyed by Serbs the previous summer. "I thought it would be safer," she said.
They were ordered to remain inside by the Serbs, and had little chance to buy food in the destroyed town. But they were otherwise left alone. "We stayed inside for two and a half months," she said. "Until two days ago."
But after Belgrade capitulated and the Serb forces were given six days to pull out of this region, "they got mad at everything," Miss Lokaj said, "and they began to burn again." The Serbs "took anything they wanted, and they started driving people out of the center."
The Serbs arrived at their apartment building about 9 p.m. on Saturday and set fire to the first floor, Miss Lokaj said. "We were terrified and screamed at them from the balcony, 'We're here!' They looked up, but didn't say anything."
They ran downstairs, leaving the canvasses of her father, a well-known painter, to the flames. One Serb neighbor became angry, but was ordered to be quiet, she said. So the the Lokajs and two other families hid outside in the dark, fearing the Serbs would be back to kill them.
Early the next morning, Father Iguman and Father Sava found them and brought them to Decani. Father Sava, a tall man of 33 with a curly tan beard and eyeglasses, said he had only done what anyone would do. "We offered them hospitality and I am very pleased they accepted."
Last year, he said, the monastery was host to 50 Serb refugees expelled from surrounding villages by the Kosovo Liberation Army, and they remained here through the bombing by NATO, whose forces here are known as KFOR. "But now, all of them became afraid and left," Father Sava said sadly. "We begged them to stay and told them that KFOR would protect them, but they said there was a vacuum and they couldn't stay."
Of the 2,000 Serbs of Decani, he said, only about 10 remain. "This is a biblical catastrophe, with the flight first of the Albanian population and then the Serb population," Father Sava said as he offered the monastery's home-made brandy, thick bread and pepper spread.
Father Sava is not an overtly political person, but his views are sharply expressed. "National traditions were misused by irreligious and immoral people who don't care about God or tradition at all," he said. "And people were pushed and forced to believe in things that were wrong."
The church, he said, took a clear position against violence, ethnic purging and for the democratization of both Serbia and Albania, which was not the policy of the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic.
In his view, NATO's bombing campaign, which the church opposed, set off the very humanitarian disaster it was intended to prevent. Father Sava had himself warned Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in Washington in February what would happen to the Kosovo Albanians if NATO bombed, he said. "I told her clearly what would happen."
Bishop Artemije of Rasca and Prizren, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, published an open letter calling the bombing a mistake. "The bombs gave the pretext to the expulsion of a great number of Albanians and gave the pretext to the exodus of the Serbs," he said. "And democratic forces in Serbia are now almost nonexistent, and President Milosevic is triumphant in his phantom victory, and there is a lot of anti-Western feeling among Serbs that will stop democratic processes in this area for a long time to come."
Sincere diplomacy could have solved the problem without war, Father Sava said, and if the unarmed monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had remained in Kosovo, but in larger numbers, "nothing like this would have happened." The problems here "would not have been easy to resolve," Father Sava said. "But it could have been done. And now we've ethnically cleansed Kosovo and destroyed it and produced enormous suffering on all sides."
Miss Lokaj had worked for the security organization in Pec. She speaks fluent English/ She, too, is very angry. "When the OSCE left, they told us they would be back in two weeks and everything would be the way we wanted it," she said bitterly. "We hoped so, but after three days, everything changed. When NATO started bombing, the police and the paramilitaries started destroying everything that was Albanian."
The Serbs "made a war against civilians, against people with empty hands," she said. "There was no KLA in Decani or in Pec, and they had no right to do what they did. This is a catastrophe. And the world saw this, it saw everything, and the world is too late. I know the world felt it had the best intentions, but there is a fatality about good intentions, and they always come too late."
She turned away, brushing her brown hair from blazing eyes. "I hate the words, 'I'm sorry,"' she said. "The world always
says, 'I'm sorry,' and it's always too late. The British said, 'Be patient. You have the sympathy of the world.' Well, the ground burned under our feet, and the world says we have its sympathy."
Miss Lokaj stopped again, and then said, keeping her voice slow and even: "Don't ever be sorry about the people who are still alive. Just be sorry for the dead."
Chicago Tribune Foreign Correspondent / June 23, 1999
ZVECAN, Yugoslavia -- Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of their civilization and their Serbian Orthodox religion, and the defense of both as a holy cause. It was a cause that led to war, and for some members of religious orders these have been difficult times.
Nuns have been raped, churches vandalized and members of religious orders robbed by the Kosovo Liberation Army since the war ended.
But the Holy Mother Convent, high atop the Sokaliza mountain near here, is an exception.
Mother Maharija, 58, the abbess, and her little collection of nuns say the only trouble they have experienced in the last four months came just before the war ended, when a NATO plane dropped a 2,000-pound bomb 500 feet from the convent, causing some damage to the roof.
They think the bombing was an error, as there was no obvious military target in an area that is predominantly Serb but was devoid of Yugoslav troops at the time.
Otherwise, Mother Maharija said, the 12,500 Serbs and 300 ethnic Albanians who live in three villages that creep up the mountain around the convent co-exist in harmony. She said no local Serbs have fled since the war ended and she knew of only two Albanian houses that had been burned during the war.
"Our nearest neighbors are Albanians," she said. "During the war, we protected them, brought them medicine and took them to the hospital in Kosovska Mitrovica."
She said she took a pregnant Albanian woman to the hospital to give birth, and when she went to collect her later she found three new mothers with their babies waiting for her along with a Serb doctor.
The doctor, she said, asked her to take the women to their homes so they would be safe from any Yugoslav army or police incursions into the hospital.
"We are people of God, helping everyone in need," she said. "We have in our little church a miraculous icon, a 14th Century statue of Mary and the baby Jesus, and Albanians respect it very much.
"When Albanians are ill, they come here to pray. If you are in trouble, sometimes Serbs go to a hodja (Muslim clergyman), and Albanians come here."
The 14th Century convent, which commands a sweeping view of the green mountains and valleys stretching up to the Serbian border 10 miles away, is inhabited at the moment only by Mother Maharija and two other nuns.
Others, she said, are in Belgrade, helping give examinations to students.
How many nuns live here? "War secret," she says, and grins mischievously.
The convent is a quiet, peaceful place, and a correspondent who arrives finds even the convent's three dogs and two cats at peace. One of the cats is licking a dog's face. "They love each other," says a nun who answers the door.
Mother Maharija, who has a doctorate in chemistry, had taught at Belgrade University but opted for the religious life in her 40s.
She said the tranquility here contrasted with what happened at the Devic convent 20 miles to the south near Srbica, in the heart of a region that saw some of the heaviest fighting between Yugoslav forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army.
At Devic, she said, the KLA came last week and took away the convent car, a combine tractor, four other tractors and three generators. "They even took the watches off the nuns' wrists and did a lot of damage in the church, but they did not harm the sisters," she said. "Until French soldiers arrived, the sisters did not eat for two days."
She said she had been stopped by KLA soldiers on the highway many times, but "they did nothing to me."
She said the war has demonstrated that ethnic Albanians and Serbs must learn to live together and respect each other.
"Kosovo is a very large country," she said. "There is a place for both of us, and for Gypsies and others. Albanians can't push us out, and we can't push them out. What happened here is nonsense. It is better to sit at a table and talk rather than fight."
While some Serb members of religious orders support themselves by farming, the nuns of Holy Mother Convent finance their activities by selling books they illustrate and by painting icons.
Mother Maharija said they earn about $220 on average for each icon, selling them all over Yugoslavia and in Greece.
"Working in the fields is not conducive to a life of prayer," she said. "We are working first for God and then for money. We must have money to live."
Asked whether she trusted NATO to protect the convent, she said: "I think God will protect us. Our Albanian neighbors will do for us as we did for them. All Albanians are not bad, and all Serbs are not bad."
As she shows her visitors out, one of the convent cats is lying on top of a convent dog, purring contentedly.
"You see, they love each other," she said. "If a cat and a dog can live together, Albanians and Serbs can surely learn to live together."