nettime's roving correspondent on Fri, 15 May 1998 07:30:52 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> wsj on kosovo

The Wall Street Journal, April 30, 1998 [edited]

Monastery Becomes Sanctuary Again As Serbian Troops Roll Into Kosovo



DECANI, Yugoslavia -- Father Janjic Sava catches the first sound from a
long way off -- the deep rumble of tanks.

As they come up the valley, a long column barely visible through the
trees, the other sound emerges. The tanks are blaring nationalist Serbian
songs. <...> 

All afternoon, as shadows lengthened beneath the high stone walls of the
Decani Monastery, there was nothing but the singing of birds and the
trickle of water in the ancient fountain, sounds that have prevailed since
Serbian kings built this famous sanctuary 670 years ago in a lush valley
in what is now called Kosovo. <...>

Nights are punctuated by the distant rattle of machine-gun fire and days
by the growl of Yugoslav troops moving in to fend off a guerrilla movement
of ethnic Albanians willing to kill to gain their independence.

'What Can We Do?'

The tank column proceeds over a ridge. The noise dies away. Father Sava,
just below the abbot in the monastery's hierarchy, tugs at his beard and


Father Sava and the Bishop of Kosovo, Father Artimije, flew to Washington
twice in recent months to urge officials there to push for a speedy
settlement. They testified before Congress.  They have released statements
condemning the violence on both sides.  They have even taken to the
Internet to get out their message.

Nor are they shy about blaming the looming disaster on Yugoslav President
Slobodan Milosevic, who has used Kosovo for political leverage since he
first rose to power in 1988.

In a precursor to the disintegration of the old Yugoslavia, he stripped
Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989 and has ruled the province's ethnic Albanians
by force and neglect ever since. But as Father Sava watches Serbian
villagers-turned-refugees stream into the monastery, <...> he fears that his
quiet diplomacy can carry little weight now. Almost out of the blue, the
momentum has fallen to a growing but loose-knit guerrilla movement calling
itself the Kosovo Liberation Army.

For months the guerrillas stuck to selective attacks, ambushing Serbian
policemen and administrators, or Albanians deemed sympathetic to the
Milosevic regime. But in recent weeks, well-armed with machine guns and
artillery smuggled in from Albania, they have begun to harass and attack
Serb villagers, and now encounter the Yugoslav army in daily skirmishes

If their aim is to rid Kosovo of Serbs, then they are slowly succeeding in
this slice of land that sits in the shadow of the high mountains
separating Serbia from Albania to the west.

''Even with 10 divisions, the army cannot keep the lid on what is
happening here," says Father Sava. ''They move in today with their tanks
and their music, and they can just as easily retreat tomorrow or a month
from now, leaving us to suffer the results."


Serbs who have never gone to church now flock to the monastery, a symbol
of their distant glory, but even more a source of flour and water. They
come for information and advice or simply to spend a few hours by the
fountain, <...>

And more often than not, Father Sava is the man to whom they turn. As
evening falls, a desperate woman arrives to say that Albanian insurgents
have kidnapped her husband and six others from a nearby village. She has
heard that all of them were killed. She has also heard the Albanians have
shelled the village church.

<...> Kosovo, after all, seethes with rumor and propaganda. After the
vespers service and a silent supper in the refectory, he retreats to his
cramped office to tune in to the outside world. He has everything he needs:
two computers and a scanner, an Internet connection, a short-wave radio,
fluent English.

<...> Father Sava was 27 when he joined the monastery in 1992. His scraggly
reddish beard hasn't grown much since then, but the monastery has. From two
elderly monks the place has swollen now to 20 monks and several novitiates,
many of them former artists or musicians. Almost all are in their 30s.

Getting the Word Out

<...> The computers and scanner are new. So is the elaborate network of
Internet home-pages that Father Sava created to get the word out about
Kosovo's ancient monasteries and churches.

''All we want," he says, ''is for the world to know that there are Serbs who
have lived here for centuries, and that people must distinguish between the
oppressors in Belgrade and the life of common people on the ground." But
tonight the Internet does him little good. Roam where he may he can find no
news of recent events nearby. <...> The Voice of America is reporting that
five Serbian villagers were killed in a village five kilometers away, but
still that is unconfirmed. There is no news of any church bombings. <...>

In 1981, during a surge of Albanian nationalism in Kosovo that the
Belgrade government quickly snuffed, the monks removed hundreds of
illuminated manuscripts and books dating back to the 1300s.

Next to go was the collection of icons, which also went to Belgrade for
safekeeping when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992.  Nor have earlier
centuries been exactly kind. Built by King Stefan Ducanski in the 1320s at
the height of Serbian power and glory, the monastery was among the few to
withstand the invasion of the Turks in 1389 and the five centuries of
Turkish rule that followed.

Marauders have pillaged its church, but <...> its frescoes, the most
spectacular of their kind in the world, still cover the inner walls all the
way up to the dome.

Great Serbian Exodus

The retreat of art northwards has been matched by a steady outflow of
Serbs. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs fled Kosovo in the 17th century in
what came to be known as the Great Serbian Exodus, but as recently as
1960, Kosovo's fertile plains and wooded hills were still home to a
majority of Serbs.

As the Albanian population grew and became more restive, however, Serbs
left by the thousands in the 1970s and '80s. The rough estimate now is
that ethnic Albanians now make up about 90% of Kosovo's two million


''For the first time in my six years here," says the priest, ''there were no
children." <...> the town of Decani is nearly deserted. Normally home to
nearly 1,000 people, Albanians as well as Serbs, it holds only a few now.
Policemen in flak jackets cradle their machine guns and look nervously at
the few passing cars. An armored personnel carrier prowls the main street.

State Propaganda

President Milosevic has refused to open the conflict to outside
arbitration, which many consider the first step toward any possible
peaceful solution. The state-run media showers the public with propaganda
portraying all Albanians as terrorists and the West as the enemy of

Albanian leaders in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, aren't much better. They
refuse to condemn terrorism or even to admit it exists. They, too, are
wizards of spin. Western diplomats concede that both sides are equally
inept. So guns and violence are filling the vacuum. The Yugoslav army has
begun to call up the reserves, even coming to fetch young men in their
sleep in cities across Serbia.

Every day more troops and more armaments pour into the Decani area.
Getting into Decani from the north is hard enough. The police have set up
road blocks and let few cars pass. To the south is another story. Gangs of
Albanian guerrillas now control large swaths of the territory between
Decani and Prizren, 60 kilometers away.


A Hurried Baptism

But the monks today have some small cause for joy. A group of villagers
chased from their homes four days before have come from the refugee camp
across the hill to be baptized. <...>

The priests usually baptize adults after weeks of preparation in the
Bistrica River that flows alongside the monastery's orchards and fields.
But this is a rush job done in the church itself.  Two men, two women and
two small boys are anointed on head, hand and foot. The priest splashes them
with holy water from a blue plastic pitcher. <...> They wanted to join the
church, they say, before it was too late.

Like many Serbs as well as Albanians, they are now coming to their religion
in a roundabout way. The stories they tell <...> are repeated by others who
come throughout the afternoon to get water from the spring or packets of
food from the monks.

The bands of armed young men appeared from nowhere two weeks ago.  There
was gunfire at night. People were beaten. Suddenly fearful of neighbors
they had trusted for years, they fled. <...>

Kosovo, like all of the Balkans, is haunted by its own history. Everyone
speaks of past wounds and unforgivable injustices done. Memories of blood
spilled lead to more spilling of blood. The Decani Monastery is a
repository of that past. Yet Father Sava and the other monks know how
deadly it can be to look back.

''History in the Balkans is like quicksand," Father Sava says. ''If we
cannot move forward now we will suffer again.  Everyone will suffer." He
and the other monks spend seven hours a day in prayer. <...>  Yet he remains
a man of the world -- and a realist.  Kosovo could easily slip away from
Serbia and become part of some greater Albania.

But what he looks forward to is a more distant future when borders in the
Balkans topple as they have elsewhere in Europe.  Then for the first time
in years he could travel unimpeded to the holy Orthodox site of Mount
Athos in Greece -- just as the monks from Decani Monastery did in 1325.
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