Impressions on Kosovo and Metohija

Impressions on Kosovo and Metohija

“For a long time already I was curious to visit Kosovo and Metohija. This tiny province of 11 000 km2 (approx. 15% of the territory of Serbia) was a hot-spot of the wars following the breakup of former Yugoslavia and today is still in a frozen conflict. In February 2008 ethnic Albanian secessionist declared unilaterally independence from Serbia and until today they have been recognized by 54 countries among which, the USA and 22 European countries, but as well Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. 2/3 of the UN countries, among which Serbia, Russia, India and China haven’t recognized the Serbian province as an independent state which is why this disputed territory is still in legal limbo. There are still more than 15 000 armed international peace-keeper troops, protecting the remaining Serbs, gathered in enclaves and Serbian monasteries and churches. During an uprising of Albanian extremists in 2004, 24 Serbian orthodox churches and shrines in Kosovo had been damaged or destroyed by rioters…..

So I wanted to know how life goes today in the province, especially for the endangered Serbian community and to watch the magnificent frescoes and churches, some of them of the 12th century, which for their beauty have been classified World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Even though protected by the United Nations KFOR, most of these sites have been added to the List of World Heritage Sites in danger in 2006, due to the potential for attacks by ethnic-Albanian extremists. Naturally my aim was as well to realize a photo-reportage about this journey to be able to show how really the reality on the ground looks like….

…Approaching the administrative line between Kosovo and Serbia I noted the transformation of the landscape with pre-Alpes like, snow-capped mountains, forests and quiet rivers boarding the road….

….One of the highlights of this journey was the visit to several monasteries and churches, with the oldest dating back to the 12th century. The first I visited, and certainly one of the most impressing, was the Visoki Decani Monastery, established in a chestnut grove by Serbian King Stefan Uroš III Dečanski in 1327. We passed a first checkpoint of Italian KFOR military and our bus stopped at the second in front of the huge gate of the Monastery. Soldiers in arms told us to wait for our arrival to be checked. For security reasons it was forbidden to take photos of the military installations. The security glass windows of the guards’ cabins were crippled with impacts from former aggression by Albanian extremists.

Once we were allowed to cross the huge gate of the Monastery, the large medieval church, built from blocks of red-purple, light-yellow and onyx marble was just in front of us in the middle of the garden, surrounded by several service buildings. After a warm welcome by the monks they guided us around the church, explaining us its history and showing us the magnificent frescoes, which for most of them are remarkably well conserved. It was impressing how vibrant the colors of the frescoes are despite the lack of light and it was a special challenge for me to take pictures of them without using my flashlight….

…Not far from there is the Patriarchate of Peć, a complex of four churches in one which is the spiritual seat and mausoleum of the Serbian archbishops and patriarchs, dating from the 13th century. It is located at the very entrance of the Rugova gorge near Peć, Barbed wire boards the river for to impeach an aggression by crossing the river and armed KFOR forces protect the complex. The churches are richly decorated with splendid frescoes and contain a true treasure of medieval liturgical art. During winter time the garden with its tower is transformed into a landscape coming right out of a fairy-tale. After discussing and sharing meal with the nuns we took the direction of Prizren.

Our Lady of Ljeviš is a 12th century Serbian Orthodox Church in the town of Prizren. It was destroyed and burned down during the 2004 unrest in Kosovo by Albanian mobs despite being guarded by KFOR since June 1999. For to access the church we had to wait that KFOR soldiers cleared the entry of the barbed wire protecting the premises. The interior was cold, empty and dark, with only some of the splendid medieval frescoes spared by fire and destruction. Nevertheless we still felt the feeling of this impressing building and the rests of the remaining frescoes came to life with the light of our candles.

Three kilometers from Prizren is the Monastery of the Holy Archangels. It was erected on the left bank of the Bistrica river, on an expansive plateau formed in the gorge by the water’s fast course. At the time of it’s construction by king Dušan it was a very large monastery, housing about 200 monks. At his death, king Dušan was buried in the main monastery church and his gravestone can still be seen in the ruins of what is left today of this monastery even if his remains have been transported to Belgrade for security reasons. In 2004 Albanian extremists destroyed and burnt down nearly everything of this monastery so that today only a small house (konak), lodging the 5 remaining monks is still on site among the ruins. Standing in the yard of the monastery at dawn, looking at the snow-covered ruins and the surrounding majestic hills, one can imagine how life has been during medieval times. It was a very strange and moving experience for all of us.

The difference between the Albanian and Serb villages and settlements was very noticeable : the Serbs were gathered in enclaves with barbed wire and heavy KFOR military protecting them. Their villages were very poor and the local shops almost empty. At dawn it was difficult to say which of the shops was actually open since frequent power shortages left them without light and sometimes only a discreet shimmer of candlelight indicated that the shop was actually open. The local population gave us a warm welcome and, in typical Serbian hospitality, shared their meal with us.

The landscapes of this province are absolutely wonderful, especially the natural park near the skiing domains of Bresovica. This travel was really an extraordinary experience for me, culturally and emotionally rich and still today, I’m still enlightened with the memory of the beauty of the images I saw, the rich history and the peaceful atmosphere of the monasteries and churches. I’m looking forwards to return during spring time for to take some more photos of these, then, completely changed landscapes.” Joachim HEINEMANN,