February 26, 2003

ERP KIM Newsletter 26-02-03c

In this Newsletter we present three articles published in the February issue of the respected Catholic Italian Monthly  30 Giorni on Destruction of Churches in Kosovo -http://www.30giorni.it/ (English translation was kindly provided by 30 Giorni)

Part 1

30 GIORNI - DOPO LE BOMBE IL CAOS - Febbraio 2003


Four years after the “humanitarian war”


Albanian extremists continue to blow up Orthodox churches. And the imminent demobilization of the international military contingents also puts the ancient medieval monasteries at risk. While the hostilities towards UN personnel and attacks against the moderate exponents of the Rugova Party increase.

by Gianni Valente

At Decani, which is still, nominally, a city of the autonomous province of Kosovo belonging to Serbia, there are no longer any Serbs. Only in the monastery dedicated to the Ascension of the Lord, the 35 monks and some old people, permanent residents of the community, ensure through the ordinary rhythms of their daily life, that this place, so dear to the memory and devotion of Serbian Orthodoxy, has not already been transformed into a monument to past glories. Among them there is Father Sava Janjic, the “cyber monk”, who for four years has run a much visited Internet site where he has recounted the horrors of the conflict and now the life, under siege, of the few Serbs who remained in Kosovo after the ethnic cleansing which followed the “just war” waged by NATO in 1999. At five o’clock, along with his fellow monks, be goes for morning prayers to the church which is without electricity. Prayers have been recited here in the same way for almost seven hundred years. Likewise with the holy liturgical rites, which are those written by Saint John Chrysostom in the fourth century. Then to work immediately in a room full of computers, modems and scanners.

One couldn’t say that Father Sava and his companions come across as fanatical instigators of ethnic hatred. The documentation which they now produce on the Internet concentrates completely on the Calvary of the Serbian community in Kosovo. But their stance before the war must also be remembered, when they denounced the “blind and unrealistic politics” of the Milosevic regime, distancing themselves – unlike other members of the Serbian Orthodoxy – from the ancestral mythologies of race, blood and ethnic borders perennially drawn by divine will. For their transgressions, the monks of Decani were accused of treason by ultra- nationalist Serbs, especially when during the escalation of the ethnic conflict and the repression by the Yugoslav army, they granted refuge to more than two hundred Albanian Moslems fleeing from the reprisals of the Serbian army.

But at Decani, normality, even now, is of an artificial sort, suspended by a hair, or a wire, rather, the barbed wire of the military fences of KFOR, the multinational force stationed here since June 1999, as all over Kosovo, to guarantee the false “peace” which followed the hail of smart bombs. Since then, the Italian regiments of task force “Sauro” which came along later are stationed in Decani in a run down ex-vacation center five hundred meters from the monastery. The barbed wire fences encloses the Orthodox religious complex within the military perimeter. But soon even this monitored tranquility could vanish.

It’s no mystery that in coming months, perhaps even by spring, the Italian troops in Decani will be transferred to Pec, where the so called Camp Italy has been completed, the central logistic structure around which the programs of restructuring and the gradual reduction of the Italian military presence in Kosovo revolve. This alarms intellectuals and scholars all over the world, since they foresee the move will place in jeopardy one of the most beautiful and important works of medieval Serb-Orthodox architecture. But it worries the monks more. Father Sava says: “Since last summer we’ve been indirectly gathering news and documents which predict the transfer of task force “Sauro”. The imminent removal of the KFOR unit has also been confirmed many times to the Albanian municipal authorities in Decani. I have personally written to the KFOR command in Kosovo to make clear that reduction of the military presence, in such precarious conditions of security, will put the survival of the monastery at risk. I am still awaiting concrete replies”.

The church of the Holy Virgin, built in 1315, destroyed by Kosovo Albanians in 1999

In these years not even the presence of the Italian contingent have spared the monastery of Decani  from “provocation” of Albanian extremists: desecration of the communal cemetery, the surrounding wood destroyed, falling of several mortar grenades near the church. And whoever does the shopping for the community can only move around the city if escorted by the Italian soldiers. “Task force “Sauro”, Father Sava adds, “is the only place where we can get medical assistance and other urgent necessities. We’re not allowed to make use of any institution, there in the city”. Now that the time is also approaching for the handover from the UN police to the local police force, in which a large part of the former Albanian extremists of UCK have been recycled, the appeals of the monks for task force “Sauro” to remain in the Decani area have taken on an alarmed note. “The long term plan”, Father Sava insists, “is to force us to leave the monastery, then perhaps transform it into a museum or into a ‘Christian monument’ of independent Kosovo. But I have faith in the Italian soldiers. During the World War it was your Carabinieri who saved the monastery from the Balli Kombetar, the paramilitary Albanian nationalists who fought alongside the Nazis and wanted to destroy it ....”. An Italian Colonel who spent two years in western Kosovo and wishes to remain anonymous, has few doubts about the fate of the ancient Orthodox churches should the international peacekeepers withdraw: “The extremists are only waiting until we leave to make a clean sweep of the Orthodox holy places concentrated in Kosovo. They think that only by razing them to the ground will the churches and sanctuaries lose their power of eternal summons for the return of the Serbs”.

Under the eyes of the UN

Between 1998 and 1999, during the reprisals of Milosevic’s army in Kosovo, more than two hundred mosques were , according to the local Islamic community, destroyed or damaged. But now, in all the areas in which the region is divided under international protectorate, minarets sprout by the dozen among the building sites of the cities and towns under reconstruction, thanks not least to diligent Saudi financiers. With the churches the opposite has occurred. Since the arrival of the UN troops 112 have been destroyed or damaged, while dozens of cemeteries have been desecrated. Most of the damage was done between 1999 and 2000, when the Albanian thirst for revenge raged against everything identified with Serbian political domination. In different cases, as in Djakovica, or in Pristina, the churches were blown up under the eyes of the KFOR soldiers. Then the international troops strengthened defenses around sensitive objects of a religious nature. Especially around monasteries and ancient churches – not only the monastery of Decani, but the Patriarchate of Pec, the monastery of Gracanica, the Cathedral of the Madonna of Ljevisa, at Prizren – which the Orthodox consider to be the cradle of the Orthodox tradition itself. Lots of other churches were also placed under guard. But once the fury had passed, and the majority of the two hundred thousand Serbs had fled, the military surveillance of the extended network of churches and chapels, almost always empty and often already damaged, was gradually reduced for understandable reasons to do with the management of resources. And the way was thus opened for the nuisance of sporadic but persistent attacks, which apart from giving vent to the seething ethnic hostility, followed a calculated, systematic plan to permanently take over places and symbols dear to the historical and religious memory of all Serbs. The last churches dynamited, on the night of 16-17 November last, were those of All Saints in Djurakovac and of Saint Basil in Ljubovo. They are both in the western district of Istok, from where the permanent garrisons were withdrawn in recent months, removed and replaced by a level of “indirect protection”, barriers, twenty-four hour floodlighting, sporadic patrols and the operations of the civilian police, composed of Albanians. The day after, a note from the KFOR command confirmed the decision of the NATO peace-keeping force to maintain fixed garrisons only around religious sites “of artistic or historical importance or which are still used for worship”. On 20 January last, the Minister for Education in the provisional government actually spoke of the “authorized” destruction of the church of Christ the Savior, in the center of Pristina, still unfinished when building was interrupted by hostilities, on the pretext that the building stood “illegally” on land belonging to the local university campus. Finally, on 23 January, the KFOR command took a partial step backwards, making known its decision to freeze plans to remove the check-points set up to guard threatened places of worship. These and other similar episodes reopen the questions about the existence or not of a long range plan for the safeguarding of Serb-Orthodox churches. And also questions about the odd difficulties expressed by monochord western opinion. Always ready to collect and publicize any signs of Islamic hostility towards the self styled western Christian civilization, but keeping lips sealed about the violence still perpetuated by Albanian Islamic extremists in the heart of Europe. The same people were in the UCK militia during the war, and enjoyed, wouldn’t you know it, widespread and documented political and military complicity on the part of the centers of western power.

The Monastery of St. Mark near Prizren, constructed in 1417, destroyed by Kosovo Albanians 1999

After the humanitarian war, the chaos

 The uncertain fate of the Orthodox churches is only a stray piece of the shattered Kosovo mosaic. Almost four years after the NATO intervention, the most recent bloodshed in the Balkans history is being prolonged by the confusion and randomness in which Kosovo is dragging itself along under international protection. A powder-keg fused with latent conflicts, without any credible prospects of political stability. The ambiguous UN resolution 1244, which blocks any discussion on the definitive status of the region by tying it to the return of Serbian and gypsy refugees and the respect of their rights, is judged by observers to be an unattainable utopia. In it, the Rambouillet agreements of 23 February 1999 are explicitly restated, with reference to the principle of self determination of people as a criterion for establishing the definitive arrangement of the region. And this confirms the overwhelming Albanian majority in their conviction that, sooner or later, the complete independence of the Kosovan nation will be officially recognized. But the same resolution does not justify any unilateral violation of the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty of the equally agonized Yugoslav Federation.

On the ground, the concrete situation makes European stubbornness about remaining faithful to the declared aims of “restoring” multiethnic co-existence appear unrealistic without seeking a long-term, flexible and “consensual” way to Kosovan independence. Of the almost 200,000 Serbs who fled, little more than three thousand have returned (according to figures supplied by KFOR). Those who remain, survive in besieged enclaves protected by international troops. In the north, in the strip where the Serbian minority is now concentrated, Mitrovica, the new Berlin, remains the symbol of the refusal of Serbs and Albanians to live together, with the line of division between the two ethnic groups running along the Ibar, the local river. In Pristina, to give an example, there remain only a few dozen of the 40,000 Serbs there were before the war. In the entire region of Pec there were 32,000, and there are a thousand left.


The church of St. Nicolas near Pristina (Slovinje), construced in 16th century and destroyed by Kosovo Albanians in summer 1999

In the background, the forgotten question about the definitive status of Kosovo in itself keeps the situation suspended in a limbo fraught with tension. With a fragmentary international presence, with astronomical costs (UNMIK, the UN Administration which manages the political and administrative institutions, also pays the salaries of many public employees, as well as those of its own personnel), and on which ever more palpable popular hostility is concentrated. In the last months, intimidation, small-scale attacks and manifestations of public intolerance towards UN dependents have increased greatly. The arrest of members of the UCK guerilla movement, accused of horrendous crimes, often committed against moderate Albanians, has in recent months provoked clashes between the fringes of the population closest to the former paramilitary and the international police forces. And on 22 January last, an antitank missile hit the UN police command in Pec. This was the most serious attempt against the peacekeeping forces in all of the “postwar” period. At the same time, the prospect of a UN protectorate prolonged for decades, marking time on the crucial question of the definitive status of the region while waiting for atavistic hatreds to wither, is in the long run in danger of merely modifying power relations within the Albanian sector. At the municipal elections of 26 October last, when less than 60% of the electorate went to the polls, the party of President Ibrahim Rugova (LDK), even though maintaining its pre-eminence, lost ground to the more radical parties (PDK and AAK), which still nurture the dream of the “great Albania” and are led by former militiamen of the UCK, Hashim Taqi and Ramush Haradinaj. And in recent times Albanian extremist groups carried out a series of attacks intended to strike directly at the moderate forces who side with Rugova. In October, the day after the vote, the mayor of Suhareka, a member of the LDK, was killed. On 13 December, an explosive device was set off in Pristina and injured 25 people. On 4 January, Tahir Zemaj, a noted former guerilla leader, he too associated with Rugova’s party, but more especially a key witness in the trials against the former UCK militiamen, was shot by terrorists along with his twentyone year old son and a cousin.

Now that the usual mountebanks are preparing the world for a new “morally justified war”, there might be a point in looking at how the humanitarian bombs left things in Kosovo. Where, four years later, in a mess from which nobody knows how to emerge, the most stable reality appears to be the enormous US military base of Ferizaj/ Urosevac. A true and proper town of five thousand soldiers, with houses and barracks built in record time on ground which the American military strategists have “rented” until 2099.


Despite the UN presence 112 Serbian Orthodox churches were destroyed by Kosovo Albanians
Interior of the St. Elias church in Smac, near Prizren

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ERP KIM Info-Service is the official Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raska and Prizren and works with the blessing of His Grace Bishop Artemije.
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