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September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
21 June 2012
Joost van Egmond

Sister Anastasija walks to the church at the Monastery of Gorioc, near the town of Istok in Kosovo's northwest. (photo: Laura Boushnak)

When Kosovo unilaterally seceded from Serbia, one question on many minds was what to do with the dozen or so Serbian Orthodox monasteries scattered across the country. In contrast to the mass exodus of Serbs from Kosovo over the past decade, the monasteries are very actively consolidating their presence. For religious Serbs, they are among the most valued symbols of their cultural heritage. Kosovo is considered the cradle of the Serbian nation and of the Orthodox Christianity Serbs embrace.

Many of these sites are also on UNESCO’s heritage list. One of the few things that all in Kosovo agree on is the immeasurable value of the ancient buildings, often adorned with medieval frescoes and icons. But the question of their ownership goes right to the heart of the intangible political problem that is Kosovo, dominated by predominantly Muslim Albanian Kosovars with painful memories of Serb rule.

Some take a purely conservational stance. “We need to convince the Serbs they are part of Kosovo’s heritage, and convince Albanian Kosovars that part of Kosovo’s heritage is Serbian,” says Nol Binakaj of Cultural Heritage without Borders, a non-governmental organization promoting interest in heritage without prejudice to ethnicity. He dreams of a day when tourists will pour in to visit the monasteries, now still heavily guarded for fear of attacks by Albanian Kosovars.

In the presently tense atmosphere, mass tourism is unlikely. Both the church and the Serbian state jealously guard the monasteries. The government in Belgrade will have nothing to do with the Kosovar state it does not recognize, and continues to fund and regulate the convents it considers on its own territory.

Financial imperatives may go some way towards bridging the divide. While politically sensitive, nobody in Kosovo seems much bothered by Serbia’s funding of the monasteries — which, after all, helps to preserve the buildings. “Serbian funding is not a problem per se for us,” says Haki Rugova, the mayor of the municipality in which Gorioc is located, as well as a leading national politician. “We can’t stop it anyway.”

At the same time, the clergy are happy to work with outsiders and even the Kosovo state when it can help them. The steps forward are tiny, but it is clear nobody wishes the monasteries to go to waste. Mr. Rugova is adamant he would maintain them, should Serbian funds dry up. “We have the money. We would do whatever is needed to preserve these buildings.”

Pack a bit of optimism, should you ever wish to visit some of the most amazing structures in the region.

Tags: Monastery Serbian Orthodox Church Serbia Kosovo UNESCO

29 May 2012
Joost van Egmond

The abbess, Sister Isidora, poses for a picture at Gorioc Monastery, located outside Kosovo’s northwestern town of Istok. (photo: Laura Boushnak)

Journalist Joost van Egmond reports on events in southeast Europe for Time magazine. While preparing his article for the May 2012 issue of ONE, he recorded the following thoughts and observations.

Always proceed with caution when driving a Serbian car in Kosovo. Wounds from the 1999 war, which saw Kosovo declare independence from Serbia, are still fresh. While many stories of ethnic aggression surely belong in the realm of urban legend, there’s hardly anybody who does not feel awkward exposing himself as a Serb in areas where they do not form a solid majority.

When we are indeed stopped by the police, the officer, though not unfriendly, hardly covers his profiling: “We stopped you because of your Serbian license plates, and we thought there might be a problem.” Presenting a Dutch passport helps in a case like this. We end up being escorted to the Serbian Orthodox church.

Twelve years after the war, ethnic relations remain hyper-charged in Kosovo. The Republic of Kosovo, which has been recognized by some 75 countries, including all major Western states, has become dominated by ethnic Albanians, the local majority that had been disadvantaged under the rule of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Yet a number of Serbs remain, scattered across the country, united in their grievances against a state they do not see as theirs. Serbia meanwhile continues to assert a nominal claim over its former province, without being able to offer much to its citizens there.

We’re on our way to the monastery of Gorioc, where five Serbian Orthodox nuns live on a hillside, in the midst of an area dominated by ethnic Albanian Kosovars. In their raven-black habits, they epitomize all that’s Serbian. Until recently, they were surrounded by barbed wire, under the protection of NATO soldiers armed to the teeth. Now, they live out in the open, dependent on the nearby town for their supplies. How do they adapt to the post-war reality that is their daily lives?

It’s truly an open question. As well established as the political trenches are, Kosovo is a place where the gap between politics and daily life is notoriously large. Around every corner lies a kaleidoscope of seemingly contradictory behavior. While hearing a Serb rant about the injustices he perceives under Albanian rule, always be prepared for him to break off the conversation to greet his Albanian neighbor and to go for a drink with him. While driving a Serbian car through Albanian heartland, it's not unheard of for a passerby to break the tension by initiating a friendly chat in Serbian, the language all elder people learned at school. Ethnic strife only goes so far in impeding ordinary human relations.

While relations remain difficult, with no obvious solutions in sight, both Serbs and Albanians will continue their daily life — sometimes in conflict, sometimes in parallel universes, sometimes in harmony. It’s a very subtle line to walk.

Tags: Sisters Eastern Europe Serbian Orthodox Church Serbia Kosovo