FOR WHOM THE BELLS TOLL IN DJAKOVICA
or a story that did not make the headlines

""But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty."
(1 Corinthians 1:27)


For two years, since the end of war in Kosovo and Metohija, six elderly Serb women in Djakovica have fought with prayer and hope in God against the hatred which surrounds them.

Mother Polyka
The story of mother Polyka (click photo)
They can destroy our church but they cannot expel the Lord from our hearts

As she has done for the past 40 years, Poleksija Kastratovic, known as Poljka (read Polyka), age 65, continues to ring the bells of the old Orthodox church in Djakovica calling the faithful to prayer each day. By carrying out this task of God, she firmly believes that she is not only calling the faithful to prayer but also daringly publicizing the fact that the last six Orthodox Christian elderly women in Djakovica still live and worship Our Lord Christ here.

For 40 years Poljka has lived in the small old house in the churchyard in Djakovica. Before she chose to live a life similar to that of the ancient prophetess Anna, who hurried to greet the newly born Christ-child, she worked as a teacher. After several years of work, the Communist government fired her due to her open practice of the Orthodox faith, as was the case at that time with many public servants who refused to hide their faith.

Poljka understood this to be Divine Providence which called on her to serve God and His Church. Since then, she has devoted herself to the church, cleaning it, lighting the icon lamps and ringing the bells calling the faithful to prayer.

Had all this occurred in any town in Serbia and Yugoslavia, the story would not be that unusual. However, Sister Poljka and five other elderly Serb women live in Djakovica, a town in Metohija where Serbs have not lived for more than two years. The elderly women live in complete isolation in the churchyard, unable to freely move about or purchase anything in the nearby store. After the war in Kosovo and Metohija, in which many innocent civilians were killed in clashes between Yugoslav forces and Albanian extremists, almost all Serbs from Djakovica were forced to flee from their homes. Following the arrival of KFOR troops, the Yugoslav Army withdrew from the Province as per agreement but at the same time Albanian extremists began systemic genocide against the remaining Serbs. During those days, hundreds of Serbs were killed and abducted, thousands of homes burned and destroyed, many churches desecrated and demolished, numerous ancient cemetery markers destroyed and broken throughout Kosovo and Metohija. All those who long awaited the arrival of international forces were bitterly disappointed, viewing the bloodshed which occurred before the eyes of NATO soldiers.

Following the arrival of Italian peacekeeping forces, a small number of elderly Serbs who expected the Italians to protect them stayed in their homes in Djakovica. Unfortunately, Albanian extremists (members of the KLA) conducted everyday attacks, looting and finally burning down Serb homes. The small parish Church of the Assumption of the Most Holy Theodokos remained the only refuge and shelter, while Poljka turned out to be a true hero, saving many from hunger and death. The churchyard was overflowing with exhaused people who barely managed to make it to the small church, hiding in gardens and basements along the way. Poleksija, certain that the Lord would not abandon them, called on the people to pray and to light candles to the Holy St. Nikolai, their divine protector. One day, members of the KLA forced their way into the churchyard and began to search the people; however, by the grace of God, none of them was injured because the Italian troops were near. Those Serbs who remained in their homes fared far worse: some of them disappeared, while others were found massacred in their homes in the most brutal fashion.

Last Serbs in Djakovica
The church still survives
The last Six Serb women in Djakovica: (from left to right) Dragica Nikolic, Ljubica Miovic, Jelena Miovic, Poleksija Kastratovic, Nada Isailovic i Vasiljka Perovic
(click photo)
The Church of the Most Holy Theodokos from the 15th century (renovated in the 19th century) still proudly stands (click photo)

Italian soldiers very quickly placed the church under protection and ran barbed wire around the churchyard in order to prevent Albanian extremists from attacking the people. The International Red Cross organized an evacuation for all wishing to leave the town for central Serbia or Montenegro. Poleksija stayed with five other elderly women who decided to remain at the side of the church where they were christened and where they had prayed their entire lives. The women are all in their sixties and
seventies: Nada Isailovic, Vasiljka Peric, Ljubica Miovic, Jelena Miovic and Dragica Nikolic. Each one of these courageous women will tell you her own sad story of how only a miracle saved her from certain death by the vicious knife of the Albanians. "The KLA criminals placed a gun to my forehead and said they would shoot me in the head. I was so afraid that all I could tell them was to do what they want," says Nada Isailovic, who was thrown out of her own house close to the bus station and subsequently moved to her brother's house close to the church. Nada goes to this house, completely looted and now under around-the-clock watch by the Italian soldiers, only to sleep; in the morning, accompanied by an armed Italian escort, she goes to the church where she spends the day with the other ladies. "Whenever I walk down the street, they swear and shout at me," she says sorrowfully, "and once they threw a rock which struck me in the head." "Dozens of cars with Albanian license plates came to Srpska Street and took everything away: furniture, clothing, televisions... everything they found. When they were finished, they would set fire to the house and leave," says Nada, recalling the first "postwar" days. "It seemed that KFOR was unprepared to confront them and so they just pretended they didn't see what was happening," adds another elderly woman through tears. Of all the women, Dragica Nikolic seems to have fared the worst: she was beaten up by young Albanian men who dragged her from her small old house and then forced her to watch her house as it burned down. Dragica is always silent and her only hope is that she will be able to die in peace in the town where she was born.

Despite the almost hopeless situation in which they find themselves, these elderly ladies have not become discouraged. Poljka is the driving force of this group; always calm and collected, fully confident in God's protection, she helps others as they struggle to endure the heavy burden of hatred which surrounds them. Unable to leave their refuge, the elderly women are completely dependent on the Italian soldiers with whom, over time, they have developed very cordial relations. Perhaps seeing their own sons and grandsons in the soldiers' role, the ladies frequently prepare coffee for them and bake the occasional cake. In exchange, the Italians purchase food for the women. They give them money and the soldiers go to the nearby store to purchase basic necessities. Of course, they do not dare tell the salesclerk for whom they are buying the food or they would not sell anything to them. Immediately next to the churchyard itself, there is a store which belonged to the church and which was leased to an Albanian. Now the owner is someone else altogether and he apparently has no intention of returning the store to its rightful owner, the church. "Even this dog you see here," says Poljka. "That's our dog. The Albanians recognize him and throw rocks at him when he goes out into the street. The other dog belongs to the Italians; they recognize him, too, and they leave him alone." In this strange environment, even dogs suffer unjustly.

In front of their home surrounded in a small house
Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro with the "grannies" in front of their humble home The house was built in the 19th century and Poleksija has lived here for 40 years (click photo)
The Church of the Most Holy Theodokos from the 15th century (renovated in the 19th century) still proudly standss (click photo)

In the beginning the Albanian youths would throw garbage over the wall into our churchyard. "Once, Poleksija says, we heard an explosion and could see that a hand grenade exploded right in the back yard. Thank God it did not hurt anyone". After these incidents Italians installed three watchtowers around the church yard which now resembles a little fortress, with barbed wire, reflectors and guards watching closely from their watch towers with machine guns. Poleksija tells that some of their Albanian neighbors are good people. "But they are afraid to death from extremists to help us openly. I know for sure that all of them do not hate us. We have not done any harm to anyone and just want to remain close to our church".

Unfortunately, for Serbs even this much is very difficult and dangerous in present-day "Liberated Kosovo". There are approximately 100,000 Serbs still living in several enclaves throughout the province under military protection. Some of the enclaves, such as Orahovac, are true ghettos while others are geographically separated from areas inhabited by Albanians by mountain ranges and rivers. Outside these zones, there are no rights or freedoms for the Serbs. No one can guarantee their safety outside armored military vehicles. Anyone who wants to can kill you and the perpetrators probably will never be found for Kosovo is ruled by a conspiracy of silence. Even though all Albanians certainly do not approve of these attacks on the Serbs, the Province is still ruled from the shadows by the extremists. The recently elected municipal officials as a rule are just puppets in the hands of powerful drug kingpins and mafias which have extended their networks throughout Kosovo, Albania, western Macedonia and even Montenegro. International forces do not have a mandate to fight against organized crime and terrorism but only to maintain general security, a far stretch from guaranteeing peace and freedom for all citizens. This is the reason why the international community has more or less become the hostage of Albanian extremists and criminals who might well turn their weapons on their war-time allies should they conclude that they no longer enjoy their support.

Life under the constant guard

Life under continuous military guard - Mother Poljka with Italian Bersaglieri (click photo)

The brotherhood of the Monastery of Visoki Decani has taken on the special responsibility of caring for Djakovica's "grannies" as they are fondly called by the monks. Accompanied by a KFOR escort and travelling by armored military vehicles, the monks visit them at least once a week, bringing them food, medicine, firewood and other necessities. On Sundays and holidays they serve Holy Liturgy so that the "grannies" can take Holy Communion. From time to time, they organize trips for the "grannies" to the Pec Patriarchate or the Monastery of Visoki Decani which are also enclaves but somewhat more spacious and located in the more pleasant natural surroundings of the forests and mountains of Metohija. The grannies spend a day or two here. Sometimes they accompany the Decani monks to central Serbia or Montenegro to visit their relatives but they are always impatient to return to Djakovica where they say they like it best of all.

Poljka herself rarely leaves the church. With the vigilance of a tireless guardian, she is ever ready to chase away intruders by her faith, fasting and prayer. She spends all day in the church, praying, cleaning the church, lighting the icon lamps and burning incense."You see, there is an unusual, most wonderful fragrance of peace emanating from the icon of the patron saint, St. Nikolai," she tells the monks. "This gives us even greater hope that our spiritual battle is God-pleasing," she says with a smile.

The church surrounded by walls and barbed wire
The walls alone do not provide enough protection. The photo shows barbed wire stretched out by the Italians to prevent the Albanians from climbing over the wall and disturbing the elderly ladies (click photo)

"Humanitarian organizations rarely visit us. Some of the more honest ones told me that they are afraid of becoming known among the Albanians as friends of Serbs," says Poleksija with a sigh. "I understand that some of them are afraid while others are prejudiced against us... but thanks to God, He makes sure we always have everything we need." Some international representatives came to ask if they would like to leave Djakovica because it is obvious that there is no life for Serbs here. Poleksija always refused to answer such questions. It is no secret that some international humanitarian organizations openly encouraged Serbs to leave Kosovo. Now, however, they would like to prepare them for some sort of elections to create the illusion of multiethnic elections in ethnically purely Albanian Djakovica.

The international plan for a democratic, multiethnic Kosovo is hardly possible given the present situation in Kosovo. Despite the fact that the international community carried out a military intervention against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in order to stop ethnic cleansing, in the end it found itself in the role of an eyewitness to reverse ethnic cleansing. This time, everything is not happening in the midst of the chaos of war but in the presence of 40,000 of the best trained NATO troops. Although the international press regularly writes about improvements in life in Kosovo and Metohija, the true situation is hardly the picture of improvement and stories like this one never makes the headlines. The decrease in the number of crimes is not a result of an improvement in the security situation but a reflection of the plain fact that the overwhelming majority of the non-Albanina population lives completely separated from the Albanians, the majority of whom remain as hostile and intolerant of others as in the first days after the war. Stories about ghettos and enclaves were plastered across the front pages during the Milosevic era but now politicians and journalists in the West alike skillfully evade them.

As twilight descends on Djakovica and the sun disappears behind the distant hills of neighboring Albania, Poleksija lights candles and icon lamps in preparation for evening prayers. Yet another day has passed for her, bringing her that much nearer to her beloved Lord. The bells of the old Serb church toll a melancholy chime, reverberating among the walls of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity which remains proud even in ruins. When the Albanians destroyed it in the summer of 1999 following the arrival of the UN mission and KFOR, the entire town celebrated in song until the early dawn. "We weren't afraid. We just prayed to God. We knew that they could destroy our church but they cannot expel the Lord from the hearts of His faithful ones..." whispered Poleksija, making the sign of the Holy Cross

Text and photographs: Monks of Visoki Decani Monastery
© Manastir Visoki Decani

HOW TO HELP?

For all additional information regarding our sisters in Djakovica or to provide assistance to them through the Serbian Orthodox Church, please contact the Monastery of Visoki Decani at decani@web-sat.com

Get informed about the Decani Monastery Relief Fund in US which has been supporting the suffering people of Kosovo and Metohija in last three years thanks to donations of many God loving people all over the world. Regular reports issued on the Internet by Fr. Demetrios Serfes (US).

The ruins of the Holy Trinity Cathedral
Ruins of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in downtown Djakovica