BLAGO Expedition 2008, personal story
In June of 2008, BLAGO Fund went to Kosovo & Metohija to record and archive some smaller churches and monasteries. Radmilo Bozinovic, the author of this story, was with BLAGO for the first time. Besides being part of the crew for the archiving work, this is also Radmilo's personal pilgrimage to an area regarded as a cradle of Serbian identity and heritage, with many hundreds of churches and monasteries from medieval period of the Serbian state.
A short and warm mid-June night was gradually turning into a promising, sunny summer day in downtown Belgrade. A rare hour of serenity and calm for this bustling and happening city - sparse loving couples, last night's fun's stragglers, quietly slipping by, the working crowd not out yet - allowed me to sit at the apartment building doorstep and contemplate. I was waiting to be picked up by our group rented van for the annual Blago '08 field trip; it was running a bit late in rounding up crew members around town, which gave me time to reflect. I had been involved with the project since its inception 10 years ago, yet have never had the opportunity to participate in field expeditions so far; this time, the destination was again the historically and politically rich and tumultuous southern Serbian province, Kosovo and Metohija, but was to be packed in a fast-paced 72-hour blitz tour of visiting and recording several less-known medieval monasteries of the area. Nenad had warned me that this is to be an experience quite apart from the usual ones - a 3-day journey across time, space, and perhaps above all, spiritual landscape, far removed from the ongoing urban worries and political wranglings of the metropolitan asphalt. I thought I got the idea, but couldn't help notice the light irony of "how close, yet how far" of these worlds while viewing the characteristic cupola of the Serbian Patriarchy across the street and suddenly realizing that its namesake and titular template (in the town of Pec) is precisely in this mystical and troubled land we are about to visit. Having been involved with Kosovo-related issues in many ways over the years - mostly via the SUC - I have always strongly felt the unseen spiritual bonds and historical ties that legitimately affect in some way most Serbs, giving us the authority to speak out passionately and earnestly on the issue; nevertheless, I knew that in a sense, this is where "the rubber meets the road" - a scientific expedition and fact-finding mission, perhaps, but above all - a personal pilgrimage that I owed myself for quite some time now.
he crew has been successfully collected, and we finally leave the city limits southbound. Other than Nenad, the original founder and ongoing driving force of the project, there is the ubiquitous Meda - a man of many trades with a lightly sardonic urban wit befitting the troubled times, Sasa - the gregarious SUC technical guy also saddled with many tasks; Gordana - our spunky and energetic Byzantine art historian; and her colleague and professor Dragan, with an academic depth and eloquence to be matched only by his faith and an organic quest for national heritage. The day is young and everyone is talkative as we dash for our first stop, Jagodina. Nestled in the Morava river valley, 85 miles south-east of the capital along the modern highway, Jagodina is barely an hour's drive away and doesn't yet have that feel of the Serbian "deep South". Even though its supporting state-owned industries vanished years ago in the economic "transition", its creative city politicians managed to attract "new money" and maintain a certain level, as attested by the groomed parks, Aqualand extravaganza, and even a sizable zoo. Here we pick up key equipment from Nenad's storage space, load up on a classic Balkanic breakfast of "burek" and yogurt, soak in the first tangible rays of the day, and, energized, go our merry way..
Heading southwest now, we take a modest detour to Zica, the famed 13-century church erected by St. Sava and rich in both history and art. It is not on our formal itinerary, but almost a must under the circumstances. We take a few outside pictures, marvel the characteristic brick red stucco and the site's beautiful surroundings, gloss briefly over the treasures inside - a glimpse is enough to get a good hint and earmark a more substantive visit sometime in the future.
Our final stop before exiting Serbia proper is the medieval monastery of Gradac. Nestled in a tamer part of the mountainous landscape not far from the regional north-south drag we traveled, if offers a quaint and serene atmosphere - with the silvery medieval stone standing out on the backdrop of the luscious verdant hills and pastoral landscape. We needed to deliver some minor supplies to the sisterhood as promised from earlier contacts, and this was a great opportunity to take both archival and less formal pictures of the edifice, inside and out. Visitors do pass buy here - a tactfully supplied gift shop even attests to that - but there are none now, and the atmosphere is relaxed as we are waiting for the abbess to arrive from her quarters. We are welcomed and offered Turkish coffee by one of the sisters, whose enigmatic young face somehow evokes in me parallels with the transcendental beauty radiating from many female countenances in the Biblical tales illuminating certain Serbian monastery walls. Mother superior Efimija soon arrives and quickly engages us, as we catch up on various news. She is still young, her leadership able, manners down-to-earth, highly educated and obviously of urban upbringing. For a moment I even thought I may have once met her in an earlier life. Though unlikely, it does make me wonder what is the story that brought her and others into a life '<em>in this world, but not of this world</em>'. There may be no simple answer to that, but the fact that monasticism has been flourishing in Serbia in recent years - apparently much more so than in other nations around - made me think for a moment while leaving a heart-warming feeling of guarded optimism and revival.
Entry into Kosmet
As we approach the administrative boundary of Kosovo and Metohija (often abbreviated as Kosmet) with the rest of Serbia, a certain uneasy feeling sets in. Certainly, we all firmly stand behind the postulate of 'Kosovo is Serbia' and reject the oft-touted 'new realities' of the (nauseatingly) aggressive Western political rhetoric; and after all, we are entering from the 'Serbian- controlled' north of the province. Still, there is a certain fear of the unknown, rooted in a reality that may be wrong, but at least in part must be faced on earthly terms. The police checkpoint at the 'inner Serbian' side of the line is rather simple and expeditious. Perhaps more telling than any of the bureaucratic motions we went through was the lightly worried but hopeful look on the policeman's face wishing a loaded 'good luck' while handing back the documents. Half a mile later comes the 'outer Serbian' side of the line - the checkpoint inside Kosovo itself. Recent history becomes evident right from here - the charred remains of the Jarinje 'border post' match the ones that had filled news headlines about Serb defiance less than four months earlier; I'm tempted to photograph this history, though quickly dissuaded by more informed crewmembers. Other elements of the decor are also different and slightly ominous - UNMIK warnings and KFOR vehicles, although passive, along with police personnel that's friendly in demeanor and ostensibly ethnically Serbian, but lacking any Serbian state insignia. All in all, although we thus completed our original 'entry into the province' without a major hitch or delay - there is an uneasy sense of entering a 'twilight zone', exacerbated by awareness of the fact that in a mere few days, the scheduled passing of the secessionist 'Kosovo constitution' is bound to raise the ante and create more unknowns at this point of entry.
And in a way - a twilight zone it is. Apparently devoid of excise taxes collected by any authority, gasoline prices in this 'Serbian-dominated' Northern Kosovo are almost a full 40% less than in the rest of Serbia (or Kosovo, for that matter) - indeed the lowest in all of Europe; similar trade anomalies apparently also apply to other segments. But I suppress these troubling thoughts as we gradually descend down the picturesque wooded slopes of the broader Kopaonik range into the Leposavic area and further down the Ibar valley towards Zvecan and Mitrovica.
Our first stop is the Sokolica monastery, a well-kept women's monastery perched on a picturesque hilltop. The Blago team had done the archiving work there some years ago, and the short visit is primarily to exchange some gifts and news with the Abess, mother Makarija, and meet our escort for the rest of the trip, driver Sinisa. The monastery highlights another one of those 'administrative', dividing, cultural or even mental, lines that crisscross the province. Getting there from the main Mitrovica thoroughfare, takes a short but steep dirt road, all still within the Serbian 'Northern Kosovo', to a checkpoint manned by a couple of friendly Greek KFOR soldiers that seem delighted to exchange a few words in their native tongue with me. The commanding view from the monastery's hilltop position is delightful, but you soon realize that is the southern outpost of that 'Northern Kosovo north of the Ibar' - far less obvious than the spotlit Mitrovica with its notoriously contested Ibar bridge, with no river in site here - but no less real. Two houses built on the adjoining lower plateaus, on second glance, fly the flag of the Republic of Albania. We are later told that they are on general monastery land, and there is a UNMIK decree that mandates dislodging the squatters and restoring land ownership. The usual feet-dragging has ensued - implementation contingent on that ubiquitous 'political will' - and the eventual outcome remains uncertain.
An old friend of ours and participant at the 2004 SUC convention in Washington, Mother Makarija impressed me then, and even more so now. Advancing in age but experienced and highly educated, she has secured the sisterhood by developing an original iconography school and manufacture, combining her artistic skills and advanced chemistry degrees. She is articulate, outspoken and energetic. She retells with passion the story of March 17, 2004 - the pogrom against Serbian and other loyalist population - and her stratagem that saved the day for them. French KFOR peacekeepers were then under orders to evacuate the sisterhood and effectively leave the compound unprotected and open to mob destruction - the sad fate met by the Archangels of Prizren, monastery Devic and many other holy shrines on that day. She skillfully and diplomatically delayed the evacuation until it was eventually abandoned as a plan. A small but important moral and practical victory in a land where a sense of faith, preordained outcomes and conspiracies sometimes tends to overwhelm rational reasoning. Still, as we savor that achievement, sipping coffee and great local apricot brandy in the meticulously maintained monastery garden, a feeling of general uncertainty clearly remains.
Road to Gracanica
We further continue to our final destination for the day - Monastery Gracanica, the semi-permanent seat of the Bishop of Raska-Kosovo. Getting there requires passing through the provincial capital, Pristina, and prior to that - passing another de facto line of separation, that between the North and South. We are now in two vehicles - our rented van with Belgrade license plates, and Sinisa's car with plates of Novi Pazar, the main town of the neighboring Raska province in central Serbia that we had just emerged from. In the fluctuating legal and practical limbo that currently rules, the latter plates have come to be perceived as somehow acceptable to all sides, apparently due to intermediary activities associated with local merchants. We are advised that few problems are expected right now, as we are in the run-up to the scheduled acceptance of the pseudo-constitution by Kosovo Albanian parliamentarians, and the instructions to their administration are to 'lay low' at this point. Kosovo Albanian police perform their customs check of sorts, demur at our Belgrade plates, then relax slightly when faced with a couple of American passports.
We move into central Kosovo, without stopping until our destination, gazing through the window at a noticeably different environment than the Serbian-controlled North we have just left - an observation that will generally hold throughout our trek that crisscrossed the province and its many lines of virtual separation. There is the obvious presence of numerous mosque minarets - many are apparently Saudi-financed products of the post-1999 period. There are visibly more people here, the atmosphere seems lively and at times chaotic. Clearly, large amounts of money (obviously from sundry sources - by all accounts mostly shady and excluding the moribund local economy) have been recently pumped into this rather poor area, with numerous, usually incomplete, large brick-and-cement houses dotting the road and the once pristine pastoral horizon beyond. Complementing this is the evidence of industrial investment, led by gas stations and car washes - a little too numerous and shiny for what actual conditions and needs would warrant. Finally, there are the occasional landmarks, diverse in nature and value. The tacky Liberty-topped hotel in Pristina is more a testament to the unprincipled Clinton foreign policy and meddling that have fundamentally shaped the current state of this conflict, than to any sincere adherence to cherished American values in these parts. A short while later, again to our left but a bit further out, we recognize the familiar outline of the Gazimestan monument - the memorial to the famous Battle of Kosovo. A site with more than just great symbolic significance, it has seen its share of pilgrimages, gatherings, and counter-gatherings in the tumultuous recent years. It now stands silently, sullen and haunting - a big question mark before the future. We continue on the southeast, towards Gracanica.
Traffic is brisk on this main two-lane road, with a hodge-podge of vehicles sharing it - from heavy military hardware, though commercial and passenger vehicles of all shapes and sizes, to agricultural machinery. However - both here and on other local roads we were to traverse over the next couple of days - overall driving habits and demeanor appear quite tame compared with other parts of Serbia (add Montenegro, or even Greece, Italy, etc.) and for a Balkan region known for general lawlessness. We are later told that this is mainly the result of the drastic fines levied by UNMIK for traffic infractions. It makes one wonder why such successful policies do not carry over to other areas of law enforcement here... Still, with 'bigger fish to fry' in the background, we appreciate at least the relatively civilized driving experience. At some point, having turned off this main thoroughfare to a deteriorating side road, the sudden appearance of Cyrillic store signs - the first time since we crossed into the 'South' - indicates we are in the Gracanica-Caglavica enclave, and close to our destination for the day.
His Grace, Bishop Artemije, is not in town right now - we will have an opportunity to meet with him on our final day - but life in and around the sizable monastery compound is bustling as usual. For this multifaceted institution - ranging from the renowned historical monument, through the active place of worship, to semi-permanent episcopal seat - this appears to be somewhat of a mixed blessing. The value of being in the midst of a busy settlement with lively resident flock was always clear enough, but the weight this carries becomes evident once you face the reality on the ground. It is an overpopulated and confined enclave, with merchants peddling their wares in numbers right at the compound gate, the underemployed seeking pass time in the mushrooming taverns outside, the underprivileged seeking charity from within. Managing all this - along with the relatively sizable adjoining fields and orchards - is a daunting task for the aging sisterhood and limited civilian help they employ, which is met with mixed success. Nevertheless, as the long summer day finally winds down and its last rays bestow a seemingly divine glow on the edifice, I silently behold this majestic monument, and cannot help but marvel at medieval master Astrapa's gem that inspired copies from Trebinje to Belgrade to Illinois, as well as Rebecca West's poetic account in her famed 'Black Lamb and Gray Falcon'. The angle of light, the cupola curves - all were similar to those I had observed at daybreak in Belgrade. Yet, in many ways - it is a world apart... Of course, the Blago team had done the archival recording of Gracanica some years ago, so we take just a short tour of the inside. Still, the rich and potent images that come off the fresco-studded walls - so familiar to me from books and presentations, yet so different and more powerful in their natural, organic setting - are something, like aged nectar, that suffices to be merely sampled this time, to be enjoyed and savored in more depth at a later date... It is dinner time now - we share a lenten-style Wednesday supper with the sisterhood at the monastery's refectory, catch up on the always plentiful news with a couple of the learned monks from the diocesan office, and finally retire after a long day, to the comfortable dormitory we were privileged to enjoy in the episcopal residence.
Church in Lipljan
The next day also had an early start, and a long program ahead. Indeed, by the time we settle for the night in Decani, in Kosmet's westernmost Metohija region - we will have crisscrossed the province from most sides - center, east, south and west - and have completed a better part of our task for this expedition. This year's focus is on a series of smaller, less preserved and renowned medieval monasteries, which nevertheless harbor great historic, artistic and spiritual value - not just to the Serbian nation, but to human civilization in general. Sharing this has always been Blago's goal, to be further continued and advanced here. The first in line is actually the biggest of such churches - the old church in nearby Lipljan, affectionately called the 'Mother of Gracanica', once the seat of an early medieval bishopric. Lipljan is today a small urban center - not far from Gracanica itself but characteristically disjoint by an Albanian settlement. An almost entirely Serbian-populated town prior to the 1999 invasion, it is now ethnically divided, with the Serbian quarter much diminished, and gathered around the centrally located and relatively spacious compound that houses a modern 20th-century church, the pastoral residence and some other edifices in addition to the standing medieval one. Our crew promptly sets up and begins work, as I get to converse with the locals - the young and energetic priest and a couple of gardeners and wardens working on the compound that day. At some point, our conversation is interrupted by the rumble of portable generators, as there was apparently a 'random' power out, and these devices are the ubiquitous hedge against the ongoing systematic power-distribution blackmail of Kosovo Albanian authorities.
Our crew can finally go on with filming, and I continue the impromptu interviews. My collocutors are almost invariably former state employees and longtime local residents. Their tales are usually calm, not bitter - but they do have enough to share. A couple of hours later, as we all take a break and gather with young Prota and Protinica at the picnic table over sarajevski burek, yogurt and plum brandy, we hear more stories. They are real and frustrating - a community determined to survive and prevail, its struggle to collect seed funds to assure maximum viability and self-sufficiency by building a social hall, clinic, and residence within the contiguous compound, administrative snags from local authorities, bureaucratic wrangling with the ministry in Belgrade… and a guarded hope – indeed, faith – that has sustained them through it all, and allowed them to carry on.
Eastern Kosmet (Vaganis)
We are now heading east - towards the municipalities of Novo Brdo and Kosovska Kamenica. These are dominated by a nice, pastoral setting on a relatively mild, sloping verdant terrain. We pass by the prominently visible ruins of Novo Brdo - an important medieval city, the key silver mining center and money mint of medieval Serbia since 1326, all the way to its final surrender to the Ottomans in 1455. We continue on, through scarcely populated areas and less traveled roads, up a challenging dirt path that finally brings us to the next stop - the 14th c. church of The Holy Mother of God at Vaganis. Perched on a broad hilltop ridge with views partially obscured by lush woods, the seemingly secluded old monument complements the spiritual treasures inside with a radiant popular hope outward. We are greeted by a surprising sight of several men at work - local Serbs, apparently tidying up and cleaning the church grounds. It turns out they are preparing the site for the upcoming local feast, the second day of Pentecost - a traditional festival that gathers Christian folks from this general area. The workers are happy to take a break as our crew promptly sets up, and I strike a conversation with them over a few shots of the ubiquitous nectar plum brandy. They describe their relatively decent (compared to most other areas of the province) living experience in this remote corner, and wistfully point eastward, stressing how the 'administrative line' with inner Serbia, and the Serbian security forces' reassuring checkpoints on the other side of it, lie just 'beyond the second hill over there'. The leader of the project - actually, a Serbian high school teacher from nearby Kosovska Kamenica, here in the role of the traditional festival host - details the event context and more. A self-styled researcher of South Serbian culture and history, he recognizes my last name as that of my paternal grandfather, a prominent figure from prewar Kumanovo. Having somewhat coincidentally brought a copy of his unpublished memoirs with me, I take the opportunity to read a key inspirational passage from it, detailing events from over 100 years ago. It is a challenge to stoke national pride with these folks without coming across as fomenting fake patriotism, but I feel the text hits the mark, for what it's worth at that moment... The teacher quickly reveals himself as a man both learned and of the initiative - evident from his present organizational efforts, but also from a project to pool funds to buy out and retain properties of local Serbs considering emigration.
He then takes Meda and me for a walk along the grassy ridge, to 'see something special'. We arrive soon at a mud-and-straw hut and meet its single resident, a 75-year old recluse with traditional garb and sad blue eyes. He invites us inside the shack, its austerity almost surreal, and matched only by what is to follow - he treats us to a short flute performance. Traditional yet personal, it takes him into a trance, a unique rural melancholy reflecting emotions of a tragic story - a single father that lost his only son... Unusual and moving. Finally, we say good-bye and return to the church, where our efficient crew has just completed its task. It is a far cry from the monumental walls of a Decani monastery or Gracanica that required multiple days of concerted team efforts. Nevertheless, the modest, often marginally preserved (and even less documented) 'lesser' medieval monuments in Kosmet - the focus of the present field trip, like the temple at Vaganis before us - continue to dot the landscape of the province, as silent and objective witnesses to a rich tradition and culture; recording them, analyzing and coalescing this valuable evidence is Blago's challenging task ahead. We bid farewell to our accidental sojourners at this remote site, wish them joyful Pentecostal festivities, vow to stay in touch...
Church in Temnica
Our next stop is another smaller church, in the same general area, know as Temnica. Positioned at a local crossroads at the beginning of a shallow gorge, it resembles its Vaganis neighbor in outside appearance but is adjoined by a reasonably preserved hillside cemetery overlooking the gorge. We find a local collocutor here as well - a middle-aged man, predictably a former local factory worker - who provides security and maintenance around the site. Another human story, another mirror into the complex reality of the embattled Serb community in Kosmet. As a light rain begins to sprinkle, the technical part of the job is done, and we begin our long evening trek across the province, from the current eastern to its westernmost part, Metohija. We are to swing down a long swath across the southern tier of the province, passing through several towns, and making a couple of stops along the way.
The first, technical business stop is in the urban locale of Gnjilane - we first weave our way through a bustling oriental-style market, its narrow streets seemingly devoid of any Serbian-language signs, finally arriving at a massive solid gate; soon, with a characteristic ritual conducted on our side by Sinisa, the gate opens and a capped short man, with an almost conspiratorial expression, signals our two vehicles in and closes up quickly closed behind us. We are in the walled compound of the main Orthodox church in Gnjilane. The short fellow - the compound warden - greets us now with a more relaxed demeanor. The usual conversation ensues, we learn some basic facts of the local community. The compound serves as a sort of 'safe house' for Serbs to park for any business in town, and to perform other tasks - even washing and servicing vehicles - away from the prying eyes of hostile neighbors. We learn that the Serb population is now at 89 - a fact elucidated by the guard with the proud observation that this is 'one more than at last count' - a healthy baby boy was born into a Serb family just last week. He further shows around the church itself - an impressive edifice from 1861, with dignified 19th-century iconography and interesting glasswork. It sustained limited damage in the years of the latest occupation, and we are shown several spots where Albanian vandals have tried to start a fire with Molotov cocktails. We continue through a series of towns, and along slow two-lane valley roads, headed for Velika Hoca - the final stop before we change vehicles and head for our final destination for the day, the Decani Monastery: Kosovska Kamenica, Urosevac, Stimlje. In the latter, the is a several-minute slowdown in town, with a procession of people crowding the road before we could proceed again. I later learn from Sinisa - who drove the other vehicle - that this was, in fact, a tense moment, even for his calm disposition. The event being marked was 'liberation day' - commemorating the entry of NATO troops to replace state security forces in accordance with the Kumanovo armistice, nine years earlier. The explosive potential of the context is clear - given our Belgrade license plates and despite assurances that the local Albanian populace was 'advised to lay low' in anticipation of the self-proclaimed constitution. There was something ironic in the fact that the procession appeared to descend from an intact-looking Orthodox church on the hilltop - perhaps its patron saint protected us, as there was no problem and we finally moved along...
Much has been said of this masterpiece of medieval European art, yet seeing it live and in-person is an experience that tops even the most poetic of descriptions. The brief evening encounter - limited to the outside, viewed from the refectory and dormitory in the cool rainy night - was my first, and the feeling was genuinely sublime, making me quickly forget the ominously strict security measures administered at the entrance by a professional but friendly Italian KFOR. Unfortunately, we were late for the Canon of St. Stefan Decanski - a unique and sublime service offered weekly in veneration of the patron saintly monastery founder, whose wonderworking relics reside within - but hoped to get a glimpse of that spiritual journey at the next morning's regular liturgy. Prior to retiring, we head to the refectory for a light supper and meet with Fr. Sava, acting Abbott in place of the traveling bishop Teodosije. A rather prominent figure in his own right, the well-informed, articulate and forthright Sava quickly engages us in a combination of debriefing and inquiry. At some point he introduces us to a departing couple of 'internationals' - a female Italian humanitarian and the Venezuelan UNMIK administrator for the Decani region - a man, we were later told, of courage and objectivity, respected by the monks and Serbian community. The significance of the moment becomes apparent some half an hour later, as Fr. Sava's cell phone rings, and after an agitated conversation in English, we learned the disturbing news: the international couple had just been attacked by three Albanians at the gate to their apartment complex. Luckily, Luis - "street-smart from tough urban Caracas" - managed to fend them off. This time. But the escalation path of provocation, intimidation, and violence used by separatist criminals seems all too familiar, as is the goal of removing - one way or another - all those that stand in the way of their nefarious plans. We soon return to our main line of conversation with Fr. Sava, but the uneasy feeling lingers on. Eventually, it is time to retire for the night, as our third and final day has a packed program again.
Velika Hoca Winery
The third day begins by attending part of Holy Liturgy at the church. This needs to be experienced - the hallowed space, the saints and warriors silently staring from richly illumined walls, the transcendental chant of the monks - the feeling is simple yet sublime... After a simple breakfast, we head back to Velika Hoca, to collect our equipment, vehicle, and record some of the numerous smaller churches from the broader Velika Hoca region. Departure is delayed by a visit to 'Decanska vinica' - a brief tour of the local winery and wine-making facilities. The winery is owned and administered by the Decani brotherhood and boasts a royal medieval pedigree; czar Dusan was purported to have erected a 25-km long porcelain vinoduct from here to his imperial capital of Prizren. The master winemaker, brother Marko enthusiastically shows us around, and as we exit we are treated to another unusual spectacle - the installation of three giant steel tanks. The gigantic portable military crane supplied by the German KFOR engenders a few engineering problems and even more solutions from the onlookers and farmers. Some of our team are tempted to see the development lead to a grand resolution, but time is of the essence and we will have to settle for a simple inspection of the outcome in the afternoon. Here we temporarily part ways - the core team goes to record a local site, St. Nicholas Church, as I join our escort on a business mission that will take us south, to the very aforementioned Prizren - a once glorious city that suffered heavily both in 1999 and 2004. As we drive through Metohija, we go past various villages, including abandoned returnee projects built for Serbs from Albania during the Milosevic years. Sinisa tells me of his mother's native hamlet nearby, and the 1999 massacre of Albanian men by neighboring Serbs, preempting a revealed similar plan in reverse. A glimpse into the recurring spiral of violence, a vicious cycle so hard to break...
The two of us are finally in Prizren, as I accompany Sinisa on his courier service for the day. Our first stop is to visit Omer, an ethnic Gorani, at his downtown travel agency, in what I later learn is considered the Gorani quarter. A stocky gray-haired man, with a typical weathered look above his age, tells his story: working for state-owned companies here, then temporarily for some years in Germany, returning and relegated to limited options at present; it fits a familiar pattern. I strike a conversation with him and his female colleague; they speak in a sort of archaic Serbian dialect, with a hint of a Macedonian accent. We talk about their southern enclave and stronghold of Dragas, and the traditional St. George Day (Djurdjevdan) gathering that brings compatriots from all over, with preserved intact elements of the Christian tradition, despite the latter-day Islamization that has occurred here. In the time it becomes clear that, at least in a broader sense - these people share a Serbian identity that they are proud and cognizant of. As we talk on the sun-drenched sidewalk, a well-dressed gentleman walks by on the other side, and the lady greets him with 'Dobar dan, profesore!'; he greets back in kind. I'm a bit astonished one can use Serbian in the open, not to mention that there are 'Serbian professors' of any sort here; I am told that he teaches at a local community college of sorts that caters to Serbian-speaking population. In general, it becomes clear that there still remains a resident loyal Serbian population in Prizren - underprivileged and embattled, to be sure - but based on the adjoining Dragas-Gora hinterland, and maintaining loyalty and connection to its Serbian roots and mainstream, at this southern outpost of formal Serbian territory. Something to recognize, cherish and maintain.
We take a short stroll to the city center, crossing the Bistrica river that bisects the town, down the busy market street and past the monumental old mosque, whose shining marble was reputed to have been taken by the invading Ottomans from the nearby church of the Holy Archangels. We arrive at the main square, Sedrvan, a name that once elicited associations of cultural diversity and richness. Streetlife is bustling at the square, we sit down at a recommended sweet shop, and pick the traditional southern sweet drink, 'boza' - a largely forgotten art further north, maintained by downtown Belgrade's famous Pelivan and a few other Gorani 'poslasticar' artisans. We order in Serbian with no hassle - I'm not even sure of the nationality of the shop proprietor - and shortly enjoy the lively bazaar-like atmosphere, continue the leisurely chat about the lifestyle and how Omer makes ends meet. Lest one relax too much and forget where we are, a monument to UCK fighters and a huge banner advertising upcoming 'liberation day' festivities stand in my full view, despite the passing crowds. There is much to see in Prizren, though our time is limited. We pass by Bogorodica Ljeviska - 'The Ljevis Mother of God' church - a declared UNESCO marvel and another victim of cultural genocide. Tucked in the narrow inner-city streets, it is hard to fully appreciate its monumental outside, and we are not in a position to survey the inside today; a couple of photographs remain as a memento of the moment and visit.
We go then to another Serbian landmark standing amidst the daily life of bustling commerce and trade - 'vladicanski (episkopski)' dvor - the episcopal seat that made its mark with some of the infamous photographs of destruction and desecration during the March 2004 pogrom. It is supervised now by plainclothes Albanian security, who politely ask us about our identity and mission, then escort us into the site where we explore on our own. The monumental church itself, the living quarters, the auxiliary buildings - all have been either restored or getting there through international-led programs, yet there is no living soul around, and the silence of that absence is deafening. To be fair, the church cupola appears to have been built to match faithfully enough the rest of the edifice, which is encouraging enough - after all, the monumental church in neighboring Djakovica has been similarly bombed, then simply razed and erased. Yet, the outside stucco texture appears off, compared to the original grey stone. My companion explains how the bishop does not plan for now to return here and generalizes to be the quandary of the situation, which probably reflects the essence of many dilemmas among the embattled Kosovo Serb community - whether to take certain imperfect solutions handed down by the occupying administration and work on exploiting and improving them or tow the hard line in hopes of forcing their hand to facilitate better offers. But he is quick to add that just having someone move in soon and provide persistently, 'lived-in' presence - perhaps just a grounds caretaker for now - could go a long way to restoring confidence in the ultimate utility of such rebuilding efforts and provide a powerful deterrent to would-be new attackers. The argument appears sensible, but this debate has been raging for a while, and we would see shades of it during the balance of our trip, as well as in the weeks and months that followed, in somewhat more general terms.
Monastery of the Holy Archangels
Having completed our business in Prizren, there was enough time for a trip to the Church of the Holy Archangels, less than two miles up the Bistrica river. The drive along the river gorge is actually short but full of anticipation - this is, after all, among the more isolated and southernmost outposts of current Serbia, and - perhaps more importantly - of one of the more infamous sites affected by the 2004 pogrom: the grounds and its brotherhood were forcefully evacuated by German KFOR, leaving space for a 12-hour rampage of a deadly Albanian mob. Shortly afterward, the brotherhood under abbot Benedict returned, to tent-based and other makeshift lodgings - to begin the arduous task of rebuilding the monastery. Upon arrival, we are greeted with myriad KFOR military hardware. The tension is apparent in a strange paradox. The German KFOR continues to be in charge of protecting the site, as with the rest of the sector South. The amount of troops, armor, barbed wire, and security procedure prior to entering the grounds is unmatched by anything we have experienced in the numerous other sites. And yet, a quick glance at the surrounding topography suggests that much of this might be overkill: there is a single pathway to the monastery nestled in the treacherous river gorge, and it can be defended from a charging mob (or most any ground attack) in a straightforward way; assets were in place back in 2004 to do just that. What lacked is the political will to use them, and it thus remained unclear if all the present resources would be any more effective should that will continue to be lacking. Still, we finally make it in past the checkpoint onto the monastery grounds, where we are immediately warmly greeted by the three monks currently in residence; the others, including the abbot, happened to be away.
Also visible on the premises are a couple of Serbian workers engaged in noisy works of rebuilding the stone refectory, to follow earlier accomplishments on the dormitory and offices. Our time is limited, and we exchange some basic facts in a quick conversation, taking a few memorable pictures along the way. The brotherhood is visibly pleased at this unannounced visit from afar. We express our concern at their prospects of survival at this vulnerable southernmost outpost; their response rings with measured defiance and pride as they point to the huge Serbian flag hoisted centrally on the compound, proudly stating that 'it is here, and will remain here for a very long time'. Our patience is rewarded as a favorable wind flows the flag in full glory, and we take a couple of shots capturing the moment and its witnesses. We further examine the site of the former grave of czar Dusan. Although the relics have mainly been transferred to St. Mark's church in Belgrade decades ago, the site still has considerable value and importance, and the faint engraving on the marble stone legibly remains. The deputy abbot points to the area where the Albanian mob persistently tried to destroy or pry it open during their multi-hour 2004 rampage, yet despite some traces of surface damage, the gravestone miraculously survived. We finally go to the chapel, venerate the icons, and leave our modest contributions to the Glory of God and towards the well-being of the monastery. We bid our farewell to the hospitable brotherhood, and depart through the protective German KFOR gauntlet. On the way back we vaguely identify the location of the hermitage of St. Sava in the steep eastern cliffs; despite the clear desire, we are out of time to try and visit it. Perhaps some other time. We are heading back for Velika Hoca.
Churches of Velika Hoca
We first stop at the site where our main crew was busily working the third and final smaller church in the Metohija to be covered that day. One of the many gems of modest physical size but rich in history spiritual heritage, the monastery of St. John the Baptist is one of the dozen such sites that dot the general vicinity of Velika Hoca, and contribute to its spiritual reputation. Neglected for a long time, the monastery was taken over by an active brotherhood in recent years. The fact that this happened during the post-1999 occupation speaks to the resilience and determination evident around here.
As, Sasa, Goca, Meda and the others busily move various cameras and equipment in and out of tight spaces and loudly discuss vantage points and other technicalities in the background, Sinisa and I sit in the shade of the old walnut tree with a couple of monks and the young deacon from town, savoring the local pear brandy and culinary specialties. A novice from the brotherhood - still in his mid-20's - is particularly eloquent in describing his path from a confused but searching youth in Prokuplje in the Serbian heartland, to the present state. Together, they all proudly point out their achievements to date, in the few brief years of residence, show how much has been brought to life in and around the area as a result, and discuss with excitement their plans for the months and years ahead. We head back to town on a guarded and subtle, yet upbeat note.
Curious to see the upshot of the amusing morning scene with the oversized German mobile crane that we left in its perplexing midst, we are delighted to find that everything has been settled in the few intervening hours as if a good fairy took care of it all. The huge steel tanks were in their proper place, as was the cellar's tile roof and stone arched gate, the heavy machinery all gone. Brother Marko proudly took us around on an impromptu tour of the now functionally complete cellar, and enthusiastically discussed once again the ambitious plans that the monastery winery can now embark on and implement.
Late lunch at the town church's the dining room - unpretentious, yet hearty and flavorful. We are together with the parish priest, his son deacon who was with us earlier, and we talk about the challenges and facts of their everyday life, their alternating fears, and hopes.
Gracanica and Bishop Artemije
We bid farewell to our hospitable hosts in Velika Hoca, and head eastward, back towards Gracanica, where we are scheduled to have an evening meeting with His Grace, Bishop Artemije of Raska-Prizren. Although his Diocese stretches beyond the limits of the province, the diminutive hierarch is by far best recognized as the top prelate of the martyred province and its Orthodox Christian flock, leading it closely while carrying their Cross up the Golgotha, with an apparent mixture of bitterness, resilience, and understated hope in the Resurrection beyond. His Grace was out of town two days ago when we were first here, and even though it is already late in the day and the arduous trek back to the capital still ahead of us, we patiently wait in the tactfully appointed residence living room, chatting with his monastic assistants. The decor is simple - my eye catches the small but prominently placed Greek flag on his desk to the side, flanking a Serbian one and signifying the selfless help the fellow Orthodox brethren from the south have continuously provided over these troubled years.
Some in our party have had a longer history of communication with His Grace - certainly, Nenad did over the years of Blago work in the province which he always wholeheartedly supported, and at least Dragan as well; my first contact with him harks back to the SUC Washington convention in the fall of 2004, as I interpreted for him during a panel discussion. This was merely months after the bloody March pogrom of Serbs and other loyal citizens by organized Albanian mobs, right before international peacekeeper eyes. The archpastor was visibly bitter, outspoken and defiant, and many of those that knew him from before commented then on this stark change. As I pondered these thoughts, Bishop Artemije finally came in. Warm, thoughtful, soft-spoken - he greeted us warmly, as a prelate should (though not all of them do). His radiant demeanor puts us all at home and ease, as we go over themes ranging first from courteous on to more substantive, over light refreshments served by the helpful staff. But the warm twinkle in his blue eyes and calm voice could not hide the acrimony and disappointment of his message, disgust at the hypocrisy of the internationals he was entrusted to, the sense of betrayal, the gravity of his predicament. I had followed the events over the years, and I vividly recall the image he had prior to 2004: almost universally hailed (especially in the West) as a voice of reason, moderation, and democracy, even chastised by some Serb hard-liners all the while, he had genuinely sought compromise and dialogue, apparently often going out on a limb to witness the Christian values that his position stood for and he personally believed in. But these graces were not reciprocated, and somewhere along the line the Christian sense of righteousness and justice, in this world, may have prevailed over love for thy enemy - or perhaps the sheer shock of the March atrocity, at the head of his flock and before his eyes, may have taken its toll. In this sense, his quandary might have reflected that which has befallen the nation as a whole for the past 20 or so years reconciling seemingly competing Christian values, in this, real, world. He was now viewed by many as perhaps an obstinate hardliner, often an obstacle to progress - however defined - in the Kosmet conflict. Yet, I never forgot the salutary lesson of history, the context, and development of this attitude. Certainly, the calm and mild manner in which he elucidated his at times outspoken theses indicated that this was, if anything, a deliberate and matured stance. An instructive meeting for all, I'm sure, though we leave probably with more questions than answers. But time is up. His Grace bids us a warm farewell, as do the rest of the staff, and we get back into our faithful vehicle, for the long trek back to Belgrade.
The exit from the province involves another administrative line crossing, this time to the northeast at Merdare, and without the staged passing through the Serbian-controlled North. Still everything is routine, and we head towards Prokuplje, the closest city in Serbia proper en route to home. We stop there for a classic fast-food-grill snack, to keep us going for the remaining drive. The food is spicy and authentic; I look around as I savor it. The hour is late, admittedly, but the sparsely filled streets of this seemingly sleepy town stand in rather stark contrast to some of the bustling scenes of towns and markets with Kosovo Albanian majorities. Eerie and unpleasant thoughts - the 'white plague' and other negative demographic trends played out into the future - try to creep in, but like the rest of our group, I'm too tired to think... I brush those aside in favor of the general and positive feeling of a mission accomplished and a valuable experience lived first-hand.
Almost four hours later, our van pulls in front of my apartment building. The hour is almost identical - the crack of dawn of a long, early summer day - as in the opening paragraph. Seventy-two hours later, I look at the same scenery of the sleepy cupola of the Patriarchate, and the bell tower of the adjoining cathedral church emerging from the dark, and remember the questions that had struck me as I was waiting for the van. Was this just a dream? Even as I head up to sneak back in bed for some short hours of rest before the day breaks for real, I become sure it is not - it's a reality, and one I'm thankful to have been woken up to... A reality for all that identify with the Serbian nation, and even beyond. Perhaps all too harsh a reality for most of those that live it every day, but still an open book inviting all Serbs and men and women of goodwill to read it and savor as they please. -- END --