The future of Kosovo's past

Six years ago, when the international community put an end to the oppression of the Albanian majority in Kosovo by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, the change was spectacular: Kosovo was freed from a nightmare that had lasted more than a decade.

But the enforced peace that followed did not end the feelings of revenge and hatred that set the different peoples of this region against each other - feelings fueled by the violence and destruction that had led to calls for international intervention.

And despite the presence and commitment of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), and support from the broader international community, sporadic violence continued.

The targets of this destruction were often places that embodied the spiritual values of a religious or ethnic community, its very heart or its soul; places that represented symbols of identity and emblems of a common history. Hundreds of churches, mosques, and traditional and distinctive kulla, or tower houses, were thus razed or terribly damaged.

The violence also overshadowed the small but significant steps that were being made by a range of dedicated partners to help rebuild Kosovo and heal its gaping wounds.

UNESCO would argue here that culture is a vital component in any social-political reconstruction, or healing process. This is especially true in a region such as Kosovo that is so pregnant with history, culture, and tradition.

Kosovo has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Recent archaeological finds date back to the early Neolithic period - the 6th millennium BC - and include various anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines of fertility and painted ceramics. In classical antiquity, there were highly urbanized centers of refined culture in the area of present Kosovo.

The Middle Ages and the Ottoman period witnessed the birth of outstanding architectural monuments such as 14th-century churches and monasteries of unique aesthetic accomplishments, and mosques of great stylistic perfection, as well as impressive fortresses, urban centers, and bridges.

The Monastery of Decani is a UNESCO World Heritage site and universally recognized as a fine example of medieval religious architecture in Europe, as is the Monastery of Pec, which is also the seat of the Serbian Orthodox patriarchs.

Following a fact-finding visit to Kosovo in April last year, a team of high-level UNESCO experts highlighted the precarious state of conservation of monuments and sites.

They pointed out that all ethnic communities should understand that the cultural heritage of each is the cultural heritage of all, and that respect for the shared legacy and cultural diversity was a matter of priority.

They recommended that joint efforts be made by relevant international organizations to restore, preserve, and protect cultural heritage sites in Kosovo as a matter of urgency.

Despite the important efforts that have been undertaken to safeguard Kosovo's cultural heritage, it is time to take a more comprehensive approach.

In an effort to contribute to the protection of monuments of major historical significance, representing both Islamic Ottoman and Serbian Orthodox traditions, UNESCO is holding a conference of donors Friday, May 13, in cooperation with UNMIK, the Council of Europe, and the European Commission. According to the experts, an estimated $40 million is needed to begin the most urgent repairs and restorations.

There can be no lasting peace without solid foundations. Tolerance, mutual understanding, and respect for the rule of law, minority rights, and cultural diversity are such basics. They are the "soft" ingredients for peace-building, a long-term process that must start in the mind of each of the citizens of Kosovo and its neighbors.

Education for democratic citizenship has to be strengthened, and work must continue on revising history textbooks and raising awareness for cultural heritage protection and preservation.

There will be no future for Kosovo unless it comes to terms with its past. This exercise includes the obligation to preserve its cultural heritage for future generations.

Koïchiro Matsuura is director-general of UNESCO.

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