The Book…The Monastery of Pec…Kosovo…February 2008…
There are more remnants of the war in the countryside. Dotting the landscape are destroyed churches. The crumbling remains of what were once burned homes. Groupings of graves with fresh flowers laid over them.
The jagged mountains come closer. Arriving in Peja, the bus struggles over a set of train tracks and comes to a stop. I go over to a taxi driver and point to the mountains.
“The monastery,” I say.
Tucked into a cleft at the base of the mountains is the Serbian monastery of Pec. Since 1346 this monastery has hosted annual meetings of bishops and served as a mausoleum, housing the coffins belonging to the patriarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The monastery has been attacked several times by Albanians. In 1981 a fire was set in the monks residential quarters. Recently, a grenade was thrown over the wall, but did not explode.
The Italian KFOR unit stationed outside the monastery examines my passport before pointing me down a stone path towards the monastery’s entrance. As I walk, the most peace I’ve felt since the days in Nagua settles over me. It is an almost physical feeling not akin to relief or exhaustion. It is calm. I forgot the hacking cough I’ve developed in the past six weeks.
At the moanstery entrance the only person visible in an Italian KFOR soldier fidgeting with a walkie-talkie inside a metal guard box.
“Where do I go?” I ask.
No one answers my knock at the door he points to. I wander around the monastery’s courtyard for a few minutes before the soldier comes out of his guard box and makes signs that I should knock again.
This time I don’t wait for anyone to open the door. In a large carpeted room with a wooden table and religious paintings hangings on the walls, nuns pass by. In an adjacent room a radio is speaking about Mitrovica. Priests and nuns huddle around the radio.
I stand in the doorway saying, “Zdravo” to the passing nuns. Hello. They are very old, yet move gracefully and meet my eyes and smile, but do not stop.
After a few minutes, a priest comes up. He has a long, pointed beard and a mustache that droops passed his lips. Two cell phones hang from the belt of his robe and he is maybe in his early thirties. His name is Dushan.
“Can I help you?” he says.
“The KFOR soldier outside sent me in here,” I say.
“You’re not allowed to be in here. You can go to the church.”
“Oh,” I say.
“But I’m charmed you just came in. Please sit.”
A nun brings us coffee.
“What are you doing in Kosovo?” Dushan asks.
I tell him.
Constantly, there have been nuns walking around us. They are walking up and down the halls and disappearing into doorways, coming back out of the doorways, and disappearing again. They are silent, but do not stop moving, incredibly busy with something unseen.
Dushan tells one of these passing nuns, “This is Justin. He is traveling around the world.”
She nods and the lines across her face deepen kindly as she smiles and says, “It is dangerous to travel around the world.”
“I meet only the greatest people,” I say.
“What do you think of Serbs?” Dushan asks.
I say, “You can talk freely with Serbs. For the most part. What does Kosovo’s independence mean for the monastery?”
Dushan leans forward and points his hand at me.
“I will always be a citizen of Serbia. Kosovo is like Israel for the Jews. If Serbs have to wait two thousand years for Kosovo…they will. Spiritually Kosovo will always be Serbia.”
“And the Albanians?”
“The Albanians will someday rebel against the Americans. They are only getting Kosovo because they are American allies.”
Dushan believes the Western media is very well controlled, even better controlled than the communist media during Tito’s time…that the coverage of the war was biased towards the Albanians.
“There were horrible incidents in Kosovo committed by Serbs,” he says. “But it was not as bad as it was presented. In all of the wars in the Balkans all sides have committed an equal number of horrible acts. But the Albanians are America’s ally. So they get Kosovo.”
He talks about American imperialism and calls it totalitarian. “The Albanians are going along with America’s view of the world,” he says.
On this second point I agree with Dushan. The Albanians have embraced the Western perspective and the majority express no other desire than to join the European Union and become incorporated into the protection and wealth that it affords.
In Pristina, I met a former KLA fighter who claimed to have just returned from delivering money to opposition groups in Russia for the English government (on his Serbian passport). He had no way of proving this, but talked enthusiastically about the growing success of Western globalization and business and how this combined growth will put an end to large scale warfare.
“They have dealt with Iraq and will find ways to deal with Iran and the other places which are against it,” the former fighter said. “ The Western idea of peace is a single global trading society. The US wants a peaceful Europe so it can concentrate on Asia. An independent Kosovo is required for a peaceful Europe.”
No matter how painful it is for Serbs to lose Kosovo, it would have been only a matter of time before the Albanians again began a rebellion. There is no way for Serbia and Kosovo to move forward as one country. However, for people that oppose the Western idea of peace through globalization, events such as Kosovo’s independence are not seen as an attempt to lessen reasons for conflict, but rather an additional cause of division. For them, Kosovo’s independence is yet another unwanted act of globalization from the West that is causing the cultures and traditions that define them to be overrun.
“Would you like to have lunch?” Dushan says.
We move to the dining room. A long wooden table lined with bowls and utensils fill the large dining room.
From the kitchen, a nun brings mushroom soup, yogurt, and flaky cheese burek. She sets the dishes in front of us and then returns with steamed onions mixed with pieces of fish and a plate of homemade cookies.
Dushan talks about religion.
“Everything is imaginary,” he says. “The only real thing is relationships. Relationships with God and people are the only things that actually exist. Before you love God you first must love people. You cannot do one without doing the other. There are all those people that say they are so concerned with human rights, but they do not love their neighbor.”
I ask him about life at the monastery. Every day there is a four hour mass in the morning. Then there are private prayers followed by a two hour mass in the evening. Dushan says that for him the private prayer is the most important part of the day. While praying you do not attempt to think very much, but it is not the same as meditation.
“The prayer is about a deep connection and communication with God,” Dushan says. “That human beings are able to live inside monasteries for their entire lives is proof of God’s existence.”
We finish the food and walk outside to the church. On the way we pass a painting done by an artist from Belgrade. It shows a bearded priest with a cross behind him holding monasteries in his arms. He cradles the monasteries protectively against his body. His large eyes are large. All around him are angry bishops.
“It seems the artist is making a statement about Kosovo,” I say.
“It is a very modern painting. I don’t like it much,” Dushan says.
Inside the church, it is dark and cold. A solitary nun prays. She leaves when we walk in. I see that the church is actually multiple churches joined by a large entryway. The largest is the Church of the Holy Apostles. On either side there is the Church of St. Demetrius and the Church of the Holy Virgin.
In the Church of the Holy Apostles, the massive domed roof is modeled on the dome of the Church of Zion in Jerusalem. Dushan explains that the screens between the congregation and the altar in Orthodox churches is left over from the time when Christians were persecuted people. The screens were put around the alters to keep them hidden.
When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312 AD, he ordered that all crosses and cups be cast from gold instead of wood to give prestige to the religion, the reason why so much gold adorns adorns Orthodox churches.
In the Church of St. Demetrius artifacts from the monasteries and churches that had been attacked by Albanians in 1999 and 2004 are laid on cloth covered tables. The scepters, chalices, and inlaid metals are centuries old and slightly tarnished, having been touched by medieval kings, bishops, and monks.
In the Church of the Holy Virgin, Dushan leads me over to a wooden carving.
“St. Sava brought this back from Palestine,” he says.
The carving depicts Mary holding a baby Jesus. Following Serbian Orthodox tradition, Dushan believes it to be one of the seven icons made by the apostle Luke, Christianity’s first iconographer.
“This has been here in Kosovo for centuries. Many miracles have happened in front of it,” Dushan says.
He gestures to the icon. “Most of the other icons made by Luke were stolen by the crusaders and are in Western countries.”
“I understand what you are saying.”
We part ways when it is time for Dushan to perform the evening prayers. I walk out of the monastery and back into Peja. As Dushan and I had first sat talking there was a carving of the famous painting Kosovo Maidan on the wall behind him. In the painting a Serb woman cradles the head of a wounded soldier on Kosovo Polje after the battle of 1389. The tip of soldier’s sword is broken, but a dagger is still sheathed on his belt. He is laying across the body of a dead Ottoman soldier, the woman using a golden chalice to give him a final sip of water.
The painting evokes Mary holding the dying Jesus as he is taken down from the cross. The beauty of the woman and the exhaustion of the soldier carry all the sense of heroism and romance that has been injected into the Kosovo story. While Kosovo may be composed of myths and legends to most Serbs, it has once again set an international precedent.
For the first time it is independent, a move unratified by the UN and opposed by dozens of other countries.
Throughout Peja independence celebrations are still underway. Fire crackers crackle across the streets and there is dancing. For the first time, Kosovo is a country.
In Skopje, Macedonia, I get an e-mail from a photo editor. A massive riot is happening in Belgrade. Some of the protesters taking part in the planned demonstration against Kosovo’s independence have started rioting. The US embassy has been set on fire.
Encouraging me to remain in the Balkans, the photo editor says, “If you go now this may be a story you regret not covering for the rest of your life.”
This is true. But I have already booked a flight from Athens to Helsinki. The riots will have ended by the time I reach Belgrade.
But the story is not over…
While I feel that Kosovo’s future is somewhat secure, at least for the short term, Serbia is in a far more precarious place.
As a people, the Serbs are reeling from the loss of Kosovo. They are continuously stomped upon by their politicians and their own emotional view of history and nationalism.
The demonstration in Belgrade is only the visual manifistation of the loss of Kosovo. So much more will come. I get on the bus to Athens, determined to return to Belgrade in the spring.