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A microcosm of Kosovo's travails

Ethnic Albanian revenge is forcing Serbs to leave their Orthodox Holy Land in town of Pec.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 1999



PEC, YUGOSLAVIA

At the "Jerusalem" of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the dim rooms are permeated with a strong sense of the sacred and 800 years of history. Votive candles burn, and incense fills the air.

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But one 14th-century worship room has been converted into a storeroom.

Nowhere else may the collapse of Serbian influence in Kosovo - deemed by many Serbs to be the "cradle" of their civilization, their Holy Land - be clearer than in Pec. Here are the results of the Serbian exodus from Kosovo and of ethnic Albanian revenge attacks in the aftermath of war.

"We want people to stay, but first of all we want people to live," says the Rev. Jovan Culibrk. Albanian children these days walk past the patriarchate and shout, "We will kill all of you."

The unleashed intolerance and hatred, Fr. Culibrk says, means that "now it's impossible to live together. I feel like this monastery is in the calm eye of the storm, while the tornado swirls all around us."

The past decade of dominance by the Serbian minority culminated earlier this year in a massive ethnic assault by Serbs and a 78-day campaign of airstrikes by NATO. Some 1.4 million Albanians were forced from their homes, and about 10,000 were killed.

The Serbian rush from Kosovo began after KFOR peacekeepers deployed and ethnic Albanians started to return. The United Nations estimates that 178,000 Serbs have fled, fearing the vengeance of returning Albanian refugees.

About 40 churches and monasteries in Kosovo have been destroyed by ethnic Albanians, according to church officials, and some of the detritus has unceremoniously ended up at the Patriarchate of Pec. The site is closely guarded by Italian peacekeepers.

Gilt and yellowing icons are piled flat along the walls and in cardboard boxes, some broken and burned. Silver chalices are stuffed into plastic shopping bags. Crosses of all types - from simple wood icons to ornately carved testimonies of faith - poke from the heap.

Contrasting with the sense of decline are the confident looks of warrior saints painted on the walls. Many of them wear armor and carry weapons, which underlined a militant tradition during the last decade when Serbian nationalism was fanned by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

But today those enigmatic smiles seem only to mock the Serbian losses in Kosovo. Culibrk, the priest, blames Mr. Milosevic for the decline, and the atheism spawned during decades of communist rule that went before.

"If you do not have religion, then you have no personal identification, and only a collective identification that is easy to manipulate," says Culibrk, pulling at his long black beard. "You can be part of a crime even by your silence."

Church officials have warned sporadically in recent years that Milosevic's leadership would spell doom for the Serbian people. Culibrk calls it the "national madness" that turned normal pride among Serbs into a brutal, anti-Albanian chauvinism.

"I don't recognize that anyone who committed crimes is a Serb," says Culibrk. "They are the worst thing for Serbs, as is their leader. Being a Serb is part of me, and it is right to be proud of that, but if I kill others, that is evil."

Other Serbs have similar outlooks. "I pray every day, not only for the Serbs, but for Albanians, that God will give us love in our hearts and that this tragedy will never be repeated," says Nada Rakovic, a Serb who sought shelter with her mother at the Pec church.

She says they had reason to leave their home. Recently a mother and her young daughter were brought for burial at the church graveyard. Their throats had been slit by ethnic Albanians, she says, "because they refused to leave their home. It was a way to scare people."

Yet as remaining monks watch the pile of icons from their destroyed churches grow, Kosovar Albanians have begun to rebuild - and to reassess their lives with their former neighbors.

Bekri Mala is one ethnic Albanian who has returned and is trying to rebuild. His family is squatting for the moment in a Serbian apartment until he finishes repairing one room of their house, which is on an ethnic Albanian street less than 200 yards away from the monastery where every house was burned.

"I support all of the Serbs leaving, because I simply can't live with them anymore," says Mr. Mala, a craftsman.

"This is an inherited thing for them: From generation to generation, they were taught not to respect Albanians. I don't trust them anymore."

Mala found two of his lamps - along with half the neighborhood's belongings - in the abandoned home of a Serbian neighbor, and says local Serbs burned his house. "It's a matter of security, I don't feel safe with Serb families around."

During past church celebrations, Mala says, the black-robed monks and faithful marched on his street chanting Serbian nationalistic songs, taunting Albanians.

Now the road is nearly blocked with mountains of broken roofing tile, burned planks, and destroyed household goods.

Not far away, another ethnic Albanian wears blackened work gloves. The driveway behind him has been cleaned to perfection, and his garden of red roses appears untouched. "Only the flowers remain, so we are taking care of them," says Mahir with a grin, who didn't want to give his last name.

But Kosovo's Serbs aren't smiling. "I don't feel good about [losing Kosovo], and when I went to a church to pray, 15 days ago, it was locked," says a Serbian woman who asked not to be named. "History always changes: The ancient Egyptians and Greeks [collapsed], and time goes on. We should be open to changes, because life is so much more important than those things."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society