In Kosovo, a Peace Built on Separation

The Banjska Monastery outside Mitrovica, Kosovo, was built between 1313 and 1317 by the Serbian king Stefan Milutin.

MITROVICA, Kosovo — “This is a piece of heaven on earth,” the monk said. “When you are here, you feel it.”

Dressed in a long black robe and stroking a long black beard, the monk’s words would seem a simple phrase, a holy man talking about a holy place.

But nothing is simple here.

His home, the Banjska Monastery, is set high above a village just outside of Mitrovica in Kosovo — a divided city in a divided country that still bears the scars and nurses the slights of wars dating back more than 600 years.

Built between 1313 and 1317 by the Serbian king Stefan Milutin, the monastery was his burial site until the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.

That battle, between the Christian Serbs and the Ottoman Turks, has been highly mythologized and there are contradictory historical accounts. What is known is that the Serb leader, Prince Lazar, was killed. His death has become a symbol of Serb suffering and resistance that still resonates.

As the myth goes, on the night before the battle, Lazar was visited by a saint in the form of a gray falcon with a message from the Virgin Mary.

He could win the battle and find a kingdom on earth. Or he could lose the battle and find a kingdom in heaven. He chose to lose.

On June 28, 1989, on the 600th anniversary of the battle, Slobodan Milosevic arrived by helicopter at the site and reframed the choice that faced Lazar. It was time, he said, for Serbs to find their “heaven on earth.”

It was a call to arms and what eventually followed was an ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovo’s Albanians that ended only after a 78-day United States-led NATO bombing campaign in 1999.

But two decades after the bombing helped stop the violence, and a decade after Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia, this remains a land more divided than at peace.

Here in Mitrovica, in the northern part of the country, ethnic Serbs dominate; only recently have the police begun wearing the country’s official uniform.

Many people here do not see themselves as part of Kosovo as it currently exists. They want to be a part of Serbia but feel like pawns in the bigger game as Serbia seeks membership in the European Union, and expect to be forsaken by Belgrade if that day comes.

This was my first visit to Kosovo in my new post covering Eastern and Central Europe, a quick trip to cover a hastily arranged visit by the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, who came to talk to a community on edge after the murder of a prominent ethnic Serb politician in Mitrovica.

At a town-hall meeting, Mr. Vucic was greeted by angry and distrustful residents who asked who would protect them, saying they needed weapons.

They were gathered in a crowded hall in a city full of daily reminders of how near their former foes remain but how far apart their lives have become.

Every day, the call to prayer echoes from a mosque on the southern side of the bridge that spans the Ibar River, which cuts through the city. Ethnic Serbs across the bridge can hear the muezzin’s song as they walk past a statue only recently erected. It is dedicated to Prince Lazar. He is looking across the bridge, which is guarded by international peacekeepers. The Italian Carabinieri currently have the job.

They are just one of the scores of outside organizations that are trying to make sure the peace here does not unravel. The most visible is the NATO-led security force, KFOR.

It is easy to tell when you are driving in the ethnic Serbian area even before you see any international troops. Many of the cars don’t have license plates or have plates issued by Serbia, which are considered illegal by the government in Pristina.

Children go to separate schools. Men work in separate industries. Families eat in different restaurants. Students who graduate from the university in Mitrovica do not have their diplomas recognized by the government in Kosovo, which is led by ethnic Albanians. Even the cellphone service is divided, with Serb areas inexplicably often linked to service based in Monaco.

Given all the division, it was interesting to note — and perhaps a hopeful sign — that the shooting of the local politician, Oliver Ivanovic, did not lead to immediate finger pointing across the river to the ethnic Albanian community.

Instead, many speculated that Mr. Ivanovic’s fight against the criminal networks within the ethnic Serbian community led to his killing.

“The sense of fear among people is incredible,” Mr. Ivanovic said not long before his murder.

“I want to make it very clear: these people are not afraid of Albanians, but Serbs, local strongman and criminals,” he said. “Policemen are watching, not doing anything about it and residents feel like they have not protection, even though it’s our people, Serbs, in the Kosovo police in the North.”

The monk, who only goes by his given priestly name Georgije, agreed. “There are too many people living in sin,” he said.

But his prescription for change seemed to dismiss both the roots of the last war, the cause of so much bloodshed, and the carnage that it would likely take to carry it out.

The Serbs in Kosovo were lost, he said, blaming the separation of church and state. The only way to restore the natural balance, he said, would be to have a government based on Serbian Orthodoxy — a solution that is anathema to Kosovo’s Muslim population.

“We need the unity of the state and the church and the people,” he said, citing the principles espoused by the ancient king who was once buried at this monastery. “You cannot have one without the other.”

Over the centuries, the monastery he calls home has been ravaged by fire, abandoned and razed to the ground. Under Ottoman rule and until the end of World War I, it was a mosque. It underwent a restoration in 1990, when it was declared a Cultural Monument of Exceptional Importance by the Serbian government. Always, the Serbs came back.

That long history shaped his views and the views of many still living in Mitrovica. As a descendant of Milutin and Lazar, the monk gave voice to the Serb sense of persecution.

“First we were forced to live under the Turks,” he said. “Now it is under the Albanians and the Americans.”

But Serbs remember, he said. And he was hopeful that the Serbs would restore their medieval dominion over Kosovo once again.

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