Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #45: Kosovo: Will there ever be a Balkans Nelson Mandela in the Land of Hatred? Part II – Kosovo

#44: Kosovo: Will there ever be a Balkans Nelson Mandela in the Land of Hatred? Part II

15 July 2002
I jumped onto a local bus to Peje (Serbian: Pec), the number-two city of Kosovo. The local bazaar and Islamic quarter were so-so. Many of the ancient monuments had been destroyed by Serbian paramilitary and are being rebuilt, thanks to funds from Muslim nations like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

What interested me more were the Serbian monuments – the Pec Patriarchate and the Decani Monastery not too far away.

The Pec Patriarchate is the Vatican of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Kosovo at the time of the Battle of 1389 was the heartland of the Serbian people, although it was probably a multiracial land with as many Albanians. Prizren, another major Kosovo city, was in fact at one time the Serbian capital. It was in Pec where the Serbian Church was headquartered and the Serbian kings built numerous churches and monasteries here, hence the other Serbian name for the province, Mehotija, or “Church Land”. Even today, the official HQ of the Serbian Patriarchate (kind of pope) is in Pec, while his cabinet or operational office lies in Belgrade. This explains why the Serbs are so emotional about Kosovo being part of their homeland.

To visit the Pec Patriarchate and Decani Monastery, one supposedly needs a permit from the KFOR Italian contingent who garrisoned the Peje region. I popped by their HQ at the best hotel in town, Hotel Mehotija. It used to be a 4 star establishment, but now it was surrounded by barb wire, sandbags and mounted machine guns in downtown Peje. The not-so-eloquent Italian soldier there said, “Just go ahead. No permit required.”

And so I walked 2 km to the Patriarchate, a group of Orthodox domed buildings surrounded by a mediaeval wall, in the suburbs of the city. Here I was confronted by a group of monolingual Italian troops, who first aimed their rifles at me, and then agreed to ask their English-speaking officer to deal with me. “You need permits from HQ G5 at KFOR Regional HQ at Hotel Mehotija,” he insisted. G5 is a military department that deals with certain security matters. The sort of military designation common to many countries, as I remember from my old army days.

And so I had to return to Hotel Mehotija where I insisted on meeting the Regional Press Officer. Eventually they agreed to get a permit for me, while keeping me at a safe distance outside the KFOR security perimeter round the hotel. “Ok, you are now allowed to visit the monasteries,” said a burly guy who came out of the building. “But where is the paper permit?” I asked. The Italians are such a paper-adverse group. They murmured among themselves for a moment, and had yet another phone conversation. Then they told me that G5 and the respective units at the monasteries had my details now and I should just turn up at the monasteries. It was not their policy to issue paper permits, they insisted.

Suspicious but at a loss as to what more to do, I turned up at Pec Patricharate again. Not surprisingly, NO ONE had my details whatsoever! And they wanted a signed permit on paper. I was firm that the necessary permit was given and then the local officer had yet ANOTHER chat on the phone. After another 15 minutes, they finally allowed me into the Patriarchate complex.

Black-robed nuns fed cows outside, while a few lay followers cleaned the grounds – they have to endure daily jeering by passing Albanian teenagers. At least the Italian troops at the earlier checkpoint are making sure these passerbys do not carry arms.

“Dobry Dan,” I greeted them in Serbian. “Good Day!” They smiled and brought me to the main church building. There, a friendly English speaking young man named Nikola greeted me.

Nikola was born in Pec, and was forced to flee for his life into the Patriarchate when the Yugoslav Army withdrew from Kosovo. He has been living in this small crowded complex for the past 3 years! Most of his fellow Serbs have fled to Serbia proper. He guided me around the complex, admiring the amazing 12th/13th C. frescoes – such bright colours and intricate paintings that survived even the Turkish invasion and both world wars – would they survive the latest crisis? It would be tragic if this gem of human civilization is allowed to be destroyed by Albanian extremists, or “terrorists”, as the Serbians called them.

The Yugoslav Government has since applied to the UNESCO for listing of the Pec Patriarchate, Decani Monastery and the Grancanica Church in Kosovo as World Heritage sites, so that they might receive international protection and profile. I hope they succeed. I also admire people like Nikola, who stay on in this land of their birth, despite overwhelming difficulties, in the hope that better times would come and they could return to their homes. Deep in my heart, however, I wonder if such a day would come at all.

After that I hopped onto another local bus for Decani, though not before meeting two Canadian backpackers – the only ones I had seen in my entire Kosovo stay – who had been refused permission to visit the guarded monasteries.

Again, after a long walk through the lonely country road to the Italian KFOR checkpoint, I found that no one had my details. I was not surprised by the Italian lack of organisation though. More waiting time while enquiries were made, and finally confirmation of my permit was received.

This time, an armour-plated Land Rover came to escort me down the deserted road to the monastery itself. This time round, the monastery was even more impressive – much larger and monumental than the Pec Patriarchate, built by the father of Tsar Dushan the Great of Serbia. More frescoes and works of art. A few monks here spoke English, and a Father Stevan guided me around. He, too, had a sad personal history. He had been made refugee twice! He was born in Krajina, i.e., the Serbian-inhabited part of Croatia. He was forced to flee Krajina in 1995, and came here to Kosovo. He served in a church in Pristina (I used the Serbian version without the “h” because that was pre-1999) but was forced to flee again in 1999 after the Serbian defeat by NATO. Now he’s under siege in the Decani Monastery.

On Day Three in Kosovo, I took a local bus to the city of Prizren. This must be the most beautiful city in Kosovo. A kind of mini-Sarajevo, with minarets and church domes and spires set against lush green hills and a winding river. The central attraction is the Mosque of Sinan Pasha, a magical Ottoman mosque with friendly locals who encouraged me to take as many pictures as I like.

Again, the tragic thing of it all was that, unlike Sarajevo which remains multi-ethnic and multi-religious, the Serbs of Prizren, an ancient Serbian capital, had fled, and their churches are surrounded by barb wire guarded by German KFOR troops. At least these troops do speak English, and they seemed a lot more well-organised. Interestingly, together with Austrian and Swiss KFOR troops, they live in a camp nearby called Camp Casablanca.

Well, KFOR troops live in places with fantasy names. The KFOR HQ just outside Prishtina is named Film City because it used to be a Yugoslav film studio.

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