The stone steps leading into the medieval church where Serbian Orthodox worshipers enter are worn. In the half-light of the interior, some pilgrims reverentially lean on or drape themselves across the tomb of King Stefan Dečanski, considered by Serbs a “holy monarch.”
Others light candles. One young woman has dozens of tapers in her hand, lighting each one slowly and methodically after a brushing kiss and a silent prayer.
Many of the pilgrims have driven six hours from Belgrade to pray this Sunday in one of the most revered Serbian Orthodox churches, the 14th century Visoki Dečani.
For many Serbs, Visoki Dečani is a besieged church, surrounded as it is by Kosovar Albanians and located deep in the territory of Kosovo, the former province that broke away from Serbia in 1999 after a U.S.-led NATO intervention brought a year-long ethnic war to a halt.
The church came under attack during the Kosovo War, which was sparked by a massive repression of Kosovar Albanians by Serbian forces. The Serbs conducted an ethnic cleansing campaign, driving thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes, and they were accused by rights groups and Western governments of other major rights violations, including abductions and murder.
“We have had a very hard time since the last Kosovo conflict,” says Father Sava Janjic, Visoki Dečani’s abbot.
“Last” seems an appropriate word, hinting at the possibility of more conflict to come.
And taking the long, historical view, it is not hard to imagine that sometime in the future, monks at Visoki Dečani will again hear the fearsome echo of war raging around them — like many other Balkan churches and mosques caught on the wrong side of history.
The church has been plundered over the centuries by Ottoman troops, Austro-Hungarian soldiers, and during World War II, it was targeted for destruction by Albanian nationalists and Italian fascists. During the Kosovo War, the final one in a series of Balkan wars in the 1990s, the church was attacked five times. In May 1998, two elderly Albanians were killed 400 meters from its walls reportedly by the Kosovo Liberation Army for allegedly collaborating with Serbian forces.
“This is one of the most politically turbulent areas in Europe. The Balkans have always been on the crossroads of civilizations and invasions,” Fr. Sava said.
As he talked with VOA, soldiers from the NATO-led Kosovo Force of peacekeepers patrolled the grounds – as they have done every day since the war’s end.
“Since 1999, we have had three mortar attacks and one RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), bazooka attack. Thank God no particular damage was made and nobody was hurt,” says Fr. Sava. A strong advocate of multi-ethnic peace and tolerance, he likes to think of the church as “a haven for all people of goodwill.” During the war, the church sheltered not only Serbian families but also Kosovar Albanians and Roma.
He adds, “I’m still trying to believe that the majority of Kosovar Albanians don’t harbor negative feelings toward us. But very often we are seen just as Serbs. This church is seen as something alien here, as a kind of threat to the new Kosovo identity.”
He says Kosovar Albanians shouldn’t fear the church or see it as representing anything bad from the past. He says he hopes people will see the church as a “signpost” of a possible future, one where multi-ethnicity is embraced. His plea echoes those of other Balkan clerics — Orthodox and Muslim — who find themselves, their places of worship, and their flocks, left thanks to conflict and animosity as awkward islands.
But he worries about whether Serbia and Albania can put conflict behind them. Serbs and Kosovar Albanians remain at odds over Kosovo, and the jigsaw puzzle of the Balkans map is not helping them.
The presidents of Serbia and Kosovo have considered border changes in a bid to reach an historic peace settlement which, if sealed, could advance their countries’ applications to join the European Union and, for Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, to secure U.N. membership. More than 100 countries recognize Kosovo as an independent state, but not Serbia. The EU has said it will not consider advancing accession talks until Belgrade and Pristina have made up.
Most EU leaders have long opposed any Balkan border changes, fearing any tweaks large or small might spark a return of ethnic violence.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton earlier this year indicated that Washington could entertain the idea of border changes.
The U.S. ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, appeared more cautious about a land-swap deal, but kept the door open. In an interview with VOA during an international trade conference in Thessaloniki, Pyatt said, “There are no blank checks,” he said. “What we have been very clear on is that this process needs to be locally-owned and locally-driven and we are supporting European Union efforts to see progress.”
Various possible land deals have been mooted, officials in Belgrade and Pristina say. One possible variation could see the Serbian border would be extended south to include Serbs in Kosovo’s north and some majority ethnic Albanian areas in Serbia traded in return by Belgrade. That would not help the majority of Serbs in Kosovo, who are spread across the south and west of the country.
Fr. Sava worries any kind of land-swap deal, if pulled off, would amount to ‘peaceful’ ethnic cleansing. “Land swaps, where the majority of Kosovo Serbs would not just be left in majority-Albanian territory but also probably be forced to leave, would be very unjust,” he said.
Ultra-nationalists on both sides loudly reject land swaps.
Serbia’s main opposition leader, Vojislav Šešelj, dismisses the idea out of hand. “What are we talking about? Kosovo is just part of Serbia,” he told VOA. Kosovo is being illegally occupied, he said, due to assistance from the West, and especially the U.S, according to Šešelj seen by many as an extremist.
“We are not exchanging the land,” Šešelj said. “They can only have the highest level of autonomy. We will not recognize their independence,” he emphasized.
Šešelj, a onetime deputy to Serbia’s wartime leader Slobodan Milošević, was found guilty by the U.N. court of crimes against humanity for instigating the deportation of Croats from the village of Hrtkovci in May 1992. He argues Serbs and Albanians cannot possibly live together and that they should be in separate communities. “Albanian ones in Kosovo could be allowed some self-administration rights,” he concedes.
Earlier in September, Kosovo Albanian nationalists led by veterans of the 1998-1999 war disrupted a planned two-day visit by Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, to Kosovo by blocking roads and burning tires. Their action showed how inflammatory the whole issue can easily become. Banje, the village west of the capital, Pristina, that Vučić planned to visit was the scene of the first crackdown by Serbian troops against ethnic Albanian separatists in 1998, which triggered the outbreak of open hostilities.
“All the wars in the former Yugoslavia were focused on territory and division, and to continue with the idea of territory is dangerous and will inflame nationalistic passions,” warns Nataša Kandić, a Serbian human rights campaigner and Nobel Peace prize nominee.
Talk of land swaps appear to have been shelved for now. But may well re-appear.
Fr. Sava harbors the same fear. “We still see people who are drawing up maps, and these maps in the 1990s became actually the killing fields. Do we still need it now?” he asked. “I am just trying to be hopeful that politicians see the risk of going into this story again.”
Most Kosovar Albanians and Serbs view the idea of border revisions with horror, according to recent opinion surveys.