Back from a trip to Kosovo
Piotr Bein October 23, 2008
I am back from a trip to “independent” Kosovo. Too many Serbian villages are no more, overtaken by Albanians, decimated. Serbian enclaves are de facto prisons of Serbs, who don’t dare to venture out. Remaining Serbian churches and cemeteries are in ruins, behind razor wire coils. Showcase monasteries and churches spared by the “international community” exist practically inside KFOR forts built of gabions, wire and watch towers armoured with sand bags. A truly independent people does not need ghetto-like arrangements to be kept off their co-habitants.
The Serbian objects in the KFOR confines contrast with the spaciousness of Camp Bondsteel that, with its watchtowers, fences and rows of barracks, resembles a concentration camp – I thought while admiring the view from a Muslim cemetary overlooking the American monster. Helicopters came and went, and a bus, sluggish in the illusion of the distance, circulated between the busy entry gate and mysterious buildings inside. Later I learned I may have been watching deliveries of drugs for Thachi’s mafia.
Following the plan of now-Noble laureate, Athisaari, EU has embarked on imposing a legally and politically unprecedented Eulex – a self-called mission of 2000 policemen, customs officers and justice personnel to replace UNMIK. In the beautiful dining hall of Visoki Dechani monastery, I dined with a few people, among them an outgoing UNMIK official from Latin America. The famous cyber-monk Fr. Sava prayed, and we started a splendid dinner prepared from surplus food of the Italian KFOR. But even the monastery’s wine could not alleviate our concerns for the future of beloved monastery, Kosovo, Serbian culture as well as personal career. “It’s my home, nine years of my life”, said the former UNMIK official, frustrated that only Europeans may re-apply for Eulex positions. A Chilean peacekeeper officer was more cheerful. Perhaps the military will stay for good? Thanks to people like I dined with on that August evening, a few monuments of Kosovo Serbian Orthodoxy still stand.
Life goes on
I entered Serbia from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on my train-bicycle trip from Poland through Kiev, Odessa, Bucharest, Istanbul, Mount Athos and Thessaloniki in Greece. At the border station north of Kumanovo, where the “international community” has deceived Milosevic into withdrawing Yugoslav army from Kosovo on the false promise of integrity of Serbian territory, I left the train and overnighted by a gutted house. Next morning I passed by a ruined mosque, crossed into Serbia and biked looking for a station in Preshevo, but couldn’t find it for its military-base look. Tensions in the fertile Preshevo-Bujanovac-Medvedia valley must be real, if KFOR has turned the station into a fort. After Serbian pass control of passengers onboard the train from Skopje, we were allowed in.
I headed to Grdelica, the place of 1999 bombing of a passenger train by NATO. As the train snaked at 20 km/hr over every culvert and bridge, I recalled NATO lie about its speed well over 100 km/hr being the reason of the bombing “mistake”. My friends from the time of investigating that crime go on living. Coja, the photographer who had taken pictures for me (I had not been allowed to carry a camera in Yugoslavia), has a thriving business. His son, a translator better than many grownups, spoke to me over the phone from Belgrade, where he worked for an international computer firm. Petar, whose house had been turned into a crater during one of NATO raids, was in Belgrade on business. His son, a wood icon carver, showered fruit and veggies for my trip to Kosovo, promising he would give my regards to Petar. I managed to ride only couple of miles when my tube exploded in the road heat.
I walked back to town, stopped in the shade along Juzhna Morava River, got peaches from a kind woman busy in front of her tidy house. A new tube cost the same as in Canada, but the train to Bujanovac was hours late, and the station toilet was plain scary. Sitting with legs stretched to the opposite seats in a compartment for themselves, three Swedish students touring European capitals were aggravated to hear the truth about Srebrenica and NATO aggression. One of them exploded and showed me the door. “You can buy first class if you want more room. Instead of a tantrum, just say you can’t take the truth” – I said. “Truth comes in all kinds of shades” – answered the neoliberally-raised Swedes. I almost missed the station. It was dark and I pitched my tent outside town, next to ripe corn.
In morning sun, the town of Bujanovac reflected the economic inequalities between Serbs and Albanians, the latter owning flashy buildings of commerce and large, rich homes. Going through Serbian border post with dozens of vehicles waiting for passage in both directions, then through Kosovo border point under a EU-stylized flag with outline of this, still Serbian province, according to all international law books, I was in the lion’s den. Some Albanians openly express their hatred towards Serbs, Russians and other nations who have rejected the unilateral declaration of Kosovo independence. “Where are you from?” – was the usual question to this traveller on a dusted bicycle. Canada and Poland met with approvals, but when I answered “Serbia”, angry growls and impatient body language followed. One of the three Albanians I talked to at a water tap by the roadside pretended – “It doesn’t matter where you from.” “Serbs and Russians bad” – insisted the jumpy one against the feable moderator – “because they don’t recognize Kosova, not like America, England, Germany, France, Poland…” I pointed out he had just named the pro-Israeli, Zionist states, and the Zionists persecute Muslims and other Arabs in Palestine, have subdued Afghanistan and Iraq, and are about to wage nuclear war against Muslim Iran. I doubt that my interlocutors got the point.
At the outskirts of Ferizaj (Uroshevac) I stop in a tiny park with a KLA monument of three local heroes. A student of local music school relaxes on a bench. What does he think about Kosovo independence? “It’s a good thing. In the olden days Albania used to be a large country. We young have a better chance now.” He has performed in Tirana recently: “Participants from all the Balkans came – Albania, Greece, Kosova, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro.”
Typically, Serbian houses are small, unplastered, with signs of poverty and under-maintenance. It is easy to find former or vanishing Serbian places: the Albanians dump garbage and rubble around them, but they care about Albanian properties, villages and towns. Albanian mafia money brought an oversupply of business and commerce, usually located along the main roads at main towns, in an opulent style of nouveau riches who also build ostentatious homes. I’ve travelled the world but nowhere have I seen such a high density of gas stations and car wash establishments. This apparent civility stands in stark contrast to Kosovo’s dilapidated public infrastructure, dust flying around, and no direction signs on the roads. When I wanted to fill my bottle with tap water at gas stations on main routes, I could often only get a brownish liquid and a warning that I must not drink it. With surfaces in poor condition and without shoulders, roads are also dangerous. I was frequently an obstacle to traffic for the narrowness of the road and heavy traffic, both typical of Kosovo. But the drivers of vehicles big and small, including numerous cars and SUVs of emigrant Albanians with Western European licence plates, were civil most of the time.
Perhaps having in mind discrepancies from Western standards, an Albanian emigrant on a visit from Duesseldorf asked me at the Prizren bus depot how I liked Kosovo, hinting his dissatisfaction with what he found. I diplomatically answered I liked the landscape and that the place looked much better than a few years back when I visited “during the war”.
The fleet of inter-town buses are Albanian owner-operated, mostly retired German vehicles, still bearing the original business’s logo and address, like many trucks. Some public road signs are in Albanian and German, not Serbian. The only Serbian I saw from the road on Albanian-held territories was duplicate text on KFOR posters promoting NATO radio propaganda programs. At an Albanian grocery store in Suva Reka, a town devoid of any traces of Serbs, I bought juice made in Beograd. In Prizren, a bike shop keeper sold me a tire, with a suggestive smile, pointing at its “Made in Yugoslavia” stamp.
Bags and alms
The bags on my bike attract undue attention from Albanian boys. On a previous trip, a boy pulled my rear bag, wanting to steal it while I was riding through an intersection. I lost balance and fell, Albanian adults just standing there and looking on, arms folded, without uttering a reprimand. On this trip, a well-dressed boy was insisting from the roadside a couple of miles west of Gnjilane that I give him one euro. When I pulled up to the nearby Orthodox Christian-looking church, the threatened to open my bags and trash the contents if I didn’t give him money. When I refused, he proceeded to carry out his threat, opening one bag. I chased him away.
I entered the church: Orthodox iconostasis and crosses, Byzantine icons – everything appeared normal, but for a guest book that beside the name and domicile of the visitor featured two columns unheard of in Christian churches. The visitor was expected to write in the amount of donation in euros or Serbian dinars. I crossed over the two entries. The Christian churches and monasteries I know, either accept alms without pressure, or issue a tax deduction receipt on request. Having watched my tour of the church and my attitude to “alms”, an elder Albanian and one younger one (presumably the father of the boy) asked me if everything was OK. I confirmed, “except for the boy. Are you so poor that he has to beg for money? Besides, he carried out his threat of damaging my bags as I refused to give him money. What are you going to do about it?” Silence followed, the boy standing with folded arms like boys do when they know parents would protect them. They live in a large, well-finished house, located within the church grounds enclosure. Like the rest of radical Albanians they are sort of immature – powerful only because they know their “dad”, the international community protects them.
300 m of freedom
I asked Serbian monks about the incident. “Definitely not an Orthodox church because there’re no such Albanians in Kosovo,” said cyber-monk Father Sava of Visoki Dechani monastery. “It could have been an Albanian Catholic church, and a collection of money for church finishing or a new church,” said Fr. Varsonufije at the Holy Archangels near Prizren. He took me for his evening walk; “A whole 300 m of it” – he jested, showing ahead, along the creek in a deep canyon where the ruins of the monastery alongside Prizren-Skopje road remind the traveller of the gruesome pogroms and duplicity of NATO-UN. “Don’t you fear someone might shoot you?” – I pointed to cars parked on the other side of the creek. “I even don’t think about it” – he answered like many other monks would. Father Hariton from the same monastery was like that. Without hating anyone, not even the hateful mob cheering the “victory” over Serbs in June 1999 Kosovo, he fearlessly drove around his superior, wounded people to hospital, and duty errands in Prizren.
On June 15, 1999 he drove on his last errand. A group of KLA military policemen dressed in black stopped him and kidnapped, as a German reporter witnessed the whole thing. A year later, decapitated body of Fr. Hariton was found behind the hospital in Tusus near Prizren and was identified, as were the remains of several Serbs missing since June 1999. Several of his ribs and one arm were broken, there were several wounds from a knife pushed into the heart, several verterbrae were missing, and so was the head, which, a forensic specialist determined, had been cut off alive. At the burial ceremony, speakers remembered Fr. Hariton with a phrase normally reserved for saints. Chances are he is going to be one, a Martyr of Kosovo. Back in Vancouver, Fr. Dezimir with thanks took the icon of Martyr Hariton that Fr. Varsonufije gave me, and placed it beside other icons to be blessed for 40 days, before they grace the walls of our new Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Archangel Michael. Which icons will God send my way to bring to my new Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas being finished in Szczecin, Poland?
Finding Serbian places is challenging. Some Albanians gave me ambiguous if not wrong directions. I found Zochiste Monastery only after having missed the crossroads two times. I descended downhill, to find myself on the edge of a village with no cross or Serbian flag in sight. Two Albanians asked me in German “Was willst du in Kosova?” (What do you want in Kosova?). “Serbian places” – I replied in German, “Where is Zochiste?” Angrily, they pointed to an uphill path between coils of razor wires. I reached the top, paying attention to keep the tires off the razors. “Gruess Gott” (God bless) – happy to see a Christian I greeted the Austrian KFOR soldier. “Guten Morgen” – replied he, took my passport and shoved the razor coils off the road. Before the monastery gate, I turned to look at the cemetery. All grave plates except those dating after March 2004 were glued from smashed pieces. Even the dead are hated. The tiny monastery church was rebuilt bottom up, new plaster instead of frescoes inside. But the pilgrim quarters bore the wounds of the pogroms. The monk assigned me to a room with signs of violence: a ceiling stripped of plaster and a concrete floor without boards. But the door and the window were new.
Everyone jumped into vehicles to go somewhere after the morning service. I was left behind hungry, without directions to Velika Hocha only a couple miles away, which I discovered after riding back and forth many more miles. The crossroads were at a conspicuous place (for those who knew), not far from a monument of KLA heroes, who, beside the granite, left for eternity two burned-out cars with bullet holes. I arrived at the village church at the end of Liturgy (mass). It was dark inside the ancient church, only a handful of people, two from Belgrade, filming, but not for TV. The priest invited me for a chat. It was fasting time, grapes and water on the table. Tasty home-made buns were brought out for me. About 700 Serbs remain in Velika Hocha, half of the pre-1999 population, mostly older folks, as younger ones left Kosovo for better opportunities – explained the priest. “In Velika Hocha we have 13 churches, eight active, and one old, old monastery” – he pointed to the surrounding, vineyard-covered hills. “We also have the vineyards of Visoki Dechani Monastery, on the other side of the street. But for nine years I have not dared going to where they shot mortar at us in 1999” – he pointed towards the valley down below.
A German KFOR officer arrived with an Albanian translator. KFOR wanted to know how many Serbs would attend August 28 festivities in nearby Orahovac, where a few hundred Serbs remain around their church. “About 600”, answered the priest after adding to the area’s faithful a few busloads of Kosovo expellees from Serbia. For “personal knowledge”, the officer wished to know “from where does your church get the money”. The priest obliged, explaining first that the Orthodox Church is Christ leading his faithful. Second, Christ gives in unxepected ways, “like the visit of this traveller who showed up this morning” – he pointed to me. I could not contain myself: “Indeed, officer, God is a mystery; when NATO attacked Yugoslavia in 1999, the aftermath drew me to His Church. A few years on, I went for baptism at the Holy Serbian Monastery of Hilandar at Mount Athos in Greece.”
Mafia and violence
Fr. Sava answers what has changed in persecuting Albanian crimes: “The mafia rules Kosovo and in Dechani area rules Ramesh Hardinaj, a still untried war criminal. After the Hague tribunal had summoned him for a trial, he killed off the witnesses upon returning to Kosovo.” Put between sympathetic NATO-UN reps and Haradinaj’s ruthless mafia, Fr. Sava believes, the West made a deal with the mafia for the sake of temporary peace: do your dirty business but leave the Serbian monasteries, churches and cemeteries alone. This might save such pearls of Serbian Orthodoxy and UNESCO world heritage sites as Visoki Dechani and Grachanica monasteries and the Pec Patriarchate. Elsewhere, the churches might become museums under military protection – a de facto liquidation of the Orthodox Church of Christ in Kosovo.
The selection of Serbian sacred objects for saving from Albanian rage was evident during the 2004 pogroms of Kosovo Serbs that claimed over 30 fatalities, dozens of injured and thousands of Serbs driven out of the province, their houses and farms ruined, burned, plundered. In the pogroms that had had an approval by the “international community” written all over, typically the mob approached a Serbian village or church, the Kosovo police KPS arrived and evacuated the endangered Serbs, then the mob attacked and destroyed while UNMIK and KFOR forces “helplessly” stood by, for lack of effective rules of engagements. If the rules didn’t exist – a shame given the Albanian extremism, effective rules should have been instituted, since the Serbian and other intelligence services have notified UN and NATO about the planned pogroms. Today, the more sensitive sites, like the ruins of Serbian quarter in Prizren, bear warnings that trespassing will meet with KFOR gunfire. A few shots in the air or a few wounded legs could have prevented the pogroms, if UNMIK and KFOR leaders really wanted to keep peace.
That Visoki Dechani, Grachanica and Pec have survived the pogroms is the result of monks’ resolve and intervention of hi-ranking members of the international community, with whom monk-diplomats such as Fr. Sava have maintained good relations from the beginning of the Kosovo conflict. When the mob approached Visoki Dechani, it met a strong resistance from the Italian KFOR and from the monks themselves who were determined to die rather than leave their beloved monastery, thwarting the extremist plan. A few US congressmen have intervened upon heated phonecalls from Dechani monk leaders; the US KFOR dispersed the mob with helicopters. A similar situation ensued at Pec where the handful of nuns and their translator, a Serbian multi-lingual woman from France chose to die for Christ rather than leave.
A ruinous fate met the Holy Archangels monastery. When a few hundred thugs parted from the mob ransacking Serbian part of Prizren, “we received a phonecall to run”, said Fr. Varsonufije in my shelter for the night: a library-office of a small new building that, next to the ruins being rebuilt with Serbian resources, also housed a kitchen, dining area, chapel and a few monk cells, all small. “Soon the bandits were here, stopping in front of the German KFOR. A few of them stepped out to talk to KFOR who then offered us a salvation through evacuation in armoured vehicles. We just managed to gather the most precious things.” Today, the monastery is pratically inside a German KFOR stronghold. Even the decommissioned old gate with the cross painted on the doors, stands like Christ crucified, in razor wire coil aura.
In nearby Prizren, German soldiers with machine guns guard what used to be the Serbian district on the slope of a hill. The abundance of new mosques down below seems to compete with the density of wire entanglements around the ruins. You would not need to guard the ruins now if you preveted the outbreak of the pogroms – I wanted to chat with the soldier, but a KFOR chopper approached to land. I cleared off, walking downhill, past a Baalist veteran club and a Serbian Orthodox seminary behind high walls.
The resolve to protect Serbian sites seems stronger now. After an Albanian extremist launched a rocket-propelled grenade at Visoki Dechani in 2007, the international police quickly located the culprit; he is standing trial for illegal possession of weapons. “A charge of attempted murder out of ethnic hatred should be brought up”, says Father Sava, “and we are working with international lawyers on it.” The culprit told the judge an idiotic excuse: he happened to walk in the hills overlooking Visoki Dechani when he found he was pursued by a wild animal, and, finding a grenade launcher on the spot, he fired, accidentaly aiming at the monastery.
Continuing military protection of selected Serbian sites will sanction Kosovo Albanians’ claims of moderation and multi-ethnicity, against the facts, Father Sava adds, “But is there a better solution?” Obliteration of the proofs of ancient Serbian presence in Kosovo was KLA’s major goal during NATO assault on Serbia and its Kosovo and, even more ferociously, during the UN and NATO “peacekeeping” presence since June 1999. As many as 150 Serbian churches and monasteries, dozens of cemeteries, and whole villages disappeared due to Albanian fanaticism. Tacitly aided by the “peacekeepers”, in just five years the Albanian extremists have achieved what even five centuries of the Ottoman rule over Christian Kosovo could not.
Fr. Sava is optimistic about re-construction of the sacral objects: “First of all, those who destroyed will not be allowed to re-build, but will have to pay the costs.” The church in Djakovica will be re-constructed by a Kosovo Albanian contractor of Catholic faith. The same man refused the mayor of Djakovica to build a park over the foundations of another church that the Albanian extremists had destroyed before the pogroms. Bishop Artemije also doeas whatever he can to keep Serbs in Kosovo; they get employment with reconstruction, where it’s safe for them to commute, while others get economic aid where they live, for example, by working in the monastery’s vineyards – a drop in the bucket compared to the needs, as I have seen in Velika Hocha.
How many Serbs remain? “Less than 100,000, mainly in enclaves, mostly the elderly. Hard to know, as more and more Serbs leave Kosovo, sell their land. Lots along exit routes from towns, suitable for commerce, go for a couple million euros – it’s hard to stop the Serb owners from selling and leaving. The young have better life opportunities outside Kosovo”, said Fr. Sava. He was hopeful, though, that busloads of Kosovo Serbs expelled to Serbia proper will keep the Church going during Sundays and major Church holidays: “This way at least Serbian presence will be maintained here at the main sites.” I said, “Regardless, the Church without Serbs vanishes at the moment of absence of the faithful; Kosovo Serbian Othodoxy will become a museum.” After a moment of silence, Fr. Sava nods.
Hopping over borders
Bike-hopping over state borders saves on railway ticket prices. For this reason I took trains across Poland to a border crossing, from where I biked to Kovel to take advantage of inexpensive and comfortable Ukrainian trains. I paid 11 lira to a Turkish station just before the border with Greece, from where I biked on, while my companion on that train from Istanbul paid 25 lira for going just 5 km further and over the border. My original plan was to visit the Caucasus from Odessa, but the ferry to Batumi existed no more, and the Russian consulate refused me a visa to bike through to Georgia: “If you are interested in Russian monasteries, go on an organized tour.” I biked to the Romanian border through the southernmost corner of Moldova, reaching Galati, a Romanian border town infamous for its black-smoke industry that attracted international environmentalist attention following Caucescu’s downfall.
From Bucharest I took a train to Istanbul, hoping to catch a ferry to Georgia, but had unpleasant experiences in both cities instead. At the Carrefour mall in Romania’s capital, I went shopping for food, leaving the unlocked bike in the entry room, within sight of a security guard – my usual practice in the West. When I came back, the guard announced that police took my bike; I had to pay to get it back. I complained to the mall manager, he talked to the crook who said this time that the security took my bike to their office for suspicion of it being stolen. I was glad to reclaim my bike, but filed a report on extortion. In Istanbul I pitched my tent for the night on the shore near the railway station from where I had a morning train to Greece, having resigned from a 36-hour trip in Turkish trains and heat to reach the easternmost province close to Armenia. I woke up to a guy squatting over me, looking at me through the insect mesh. I opened it to ask what he wanted, but he shoved his hand in. I chased him away with harsh words. Calmed down, I crawled out …to see that my bags had been opened and everything was unpacked piece by piece. Luckily, I travel valuable-lessly.
Outside a flashy shopping mall in Warsaw I dozed away while sitting on a bench. Two kicks in my foot from a young guard woke me up: “You can’t sleep here, it discredits this mall.” This one had a name tag, so filing a complaint was a breeze. Those youngsters in new EU members need to learn civility. Will they ever, though, having been raised in post-modernity?
Copyright Piotr Bein 2008