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Against the Odds, a Serbian Institute Protects World Heritage in Kosovo

January 5, 2008


By Christopher Deliso

When they report on Kosovo, foreign media bodies often reiterate that the province is the “spiritual cradle’ of Serbia- without going into much detail about what this means, or what it might entail for the situation there today.

And so, while the press has devoted considerable attention to the implications of Kosovo’s future political status, it has largely ignored the question of how the disputed province’s recent history is shaping its future social and cultural make-up- in the long run, arguably, even more important than politics.

A Telling Misrepresentation

After the NATO air war against Yugoslavia and installation of a UN caretaker administration in 1999, the status of Kosovo’s Serbian Orthodox churches, the survival of which had already often required protection in the Albanian Muslim-dominated province, became extremely precarious. When explaining the Serbian people’s attachment to Kosovo, the Western media and governments frequently invoke the 1389 Battle of Kosovo against the Turks, while saying little of tangible heritage; the unstated implication is that the Serbs are deranged nostalgics whose attachment rests merely on folk legends. This tacit dismissal is useful for the Western media and governments, most of which argue that Kosovo’s Albanians deserve an independent state of their own.

Nothing is said, therefore, of the tangible remains of cultural heritage in Kosovo. Further, the value of this cultural heritage is never linked to that of Christianity in general, or to Europe or the world as a whole. Serbian sentiments are thus passed off as hopelessly irrational, the deluded dreams of people who ended up on the wrong side of history and can be forgotten without a twinge of conscience on the part of anyone.

Today, one organization is trying to change this misperception, while also carrying out vital work in the historical and cultural spheres. Mnemosyne, or the Center for Protection of Natural and Cultural Heritage of Kosovo and Metohija, a Serbian NGO devoted to cultural preservation, historical research and book publishing, grew out of the war in 1999, after which Albanian mob and paramilitary attacks led to the large-scale exodus of Kosovo’s Serbs. Institutions that hadn’t been destroyed altogether by NATO bombs or Albanian irregulars were evacuated to inner Serbia. Luckily, this was the case with the Kosovo Ethnographic Museum, whose minders escaped with their exhibits. The museum now resides “in exile’ in central Belgrade and continues its work under the banner of the NGO.

Vital Work

Mirjana Menkovic, Mnemosyne’s director and senior curator of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade, presents the compelling story of Christian cultural heritage in Kosovo today. She and her colleagues are trying, despite the dire conditions, to continue historical research and publications on Serbia and Kosovo. The center’s books, such as the annotated presentation of Decani Monastery’s original charter in the original Old Church Slavonic and in translation, or the enormous historical account of Serbia during the First World War, to name just a couple of examples, are extraordinary historical documents and extremely well presented. Since they are not sold online and are very expensive to ship, however, researchers in other countries have to make extra efforts to acquire these works.

In most countries, an institute such as Mnemosyne could devote all its efforts to research; however, in Serbia the many problems deriving from the Kosovo situation make the work of these academics much more complicated. Mirjana Menkovic is a specialist in the study of traditional dress and costumes by training, not a lobbyist. Nevertheless, circumstances have forced her to devote considerable time and effort to alerting the international community about the severity of the situation in Kosovo.

We simply do not have access to historical and monastic sites in Kosovo, she attests. Since 1999, the only way Serbian academics can visit such places is under the heavy armed protection of KFOR troops.

Indeed, since the end of NATO’s air campaign in 1999, over 150 Serbian Orthodox churches, some of them seven centuries old, have been destroyed or seriously damaged by Albanians. While a few of the most important churches still survive, such as Decani Monastery in western Kosovo and Gracanica Monastery near Pristina, they only continue to do so because they are under the constant armed protection of NATO soldiers. Without this protection, recent history indicates, they may well have been destroyed by now.

While this armed deterrent is thus indispensable, the very fact that such widespread damage has occurred indicates a rather mixed legacy for NATO in Kosovo. Since the installation of the UN regime in August 1999, Mnemosyne’s research teams, sometimes accompanied by foreign experts, have gone into the field several times to conduct research on medieval churches- before, and sadly sometimes after, they’ve been destroyed. In all cases, they have required NATO protection to ensure that they will not come under attack by local Albanians. Former UNMIK chief Michael Steiner’s golden rule for Kosovo — “standards before status’ — has been conveniently forgotten in the Great Powers’ rush to reach greater geopolitical solutions.


Queen Sophia of Spain, right, presents Mirjana Menkovic with Mnemosyne’s 2006 heritage protection award from Europa Nostra

Creating a Nation

The international community, in other words, has tolerated and now seems to be rewarding the kind of deliberate cultural eradication from Kosovo’s Muslim Albanians as was previously practiced by Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime, when it blew up the Bamiyan Buddha, so as to remove any tangible traces of the country’s ancient Buddhist identity. In Kosovo as well, attests Menkovic, churches have not just been toppled: in some cases, they have been completely obliterated, with all traces of their existence thus vanishing. The purpose, she attests, is the denial of historical existence; this is politically useful too, as it expedites the denial of any Serbian right to the land. Once a church has been destroyed, she says, the Albanians remove all the stones to use for their own building works, and either use the site to dump their garbage, or smooth over the land so that you would never know anything had been there.

The historian recounts one experience in which, upon entering one village in southern Kosovo, her team’s KFOR escort was told by the Albanian locals that there had never been a church in their village- despite the fact that they themselves had participated in its destruction. But there was no trace left,’ she says, sadly recalling other instances of desecration, even of Serbian cemeteries. Indeed, while everyone in Europe is preserving Christian medieval heritage, it is only in Kosovo, site of some of the most important Christian heritage in Europe, that they refuse to do so- the animosity between Serbs and Albanians has been going on for centuries, and cannot just be blamed on Milosevic. Still, I don’t know how we can explain the Albanians’ irrational hatred, as seen in the destruction of churches and cemeteries.

The issue of collective denial has serious implications as a social and educative one for the future of Kosovo. The revisionist history of Kosovo already enforced by the Albanian civil administration, in which the abundant Serbian contributions to local history have been forgotten or at least strongly minimized, will become more complete as the nation-building project continues. Those Albanians who, in the above anecdote, denied the existence of any church in their village before the KFOR escort can be accused of lying; however, their grandchildren and then theirs will grow up honestly believing that no church had ever existed. Slowly, over time, the denial of any Christian heritage in Kosovo will become institutionalized to the point that one will be ridiculed and attacked for bringing it up. There are many scenarios by which a predominantly Muslim country becomes an exclusively Islamic one, and this is the most likely one for Kosovo. In Kosovo, it has begun with the deliberate lies of one generation, and will be ossified through the selective education, the mental cleansing, of subsequent ones.

Indeed, whether or not the majority of Albanians are, or ever will be interested in Islamic fundamentalism, the wholesale destruction of Kosovo’s Christian identity perfectly serves the interests of Wahhabi and other Islamic extremists from abroad who would like to impose their own intolerant belief systems on Kosovo society and who have even destroyed Ottoman Muslim shrines and built up hundreds of alien, Saudi-style mosques across the province.

International Recognition

The plight of Kosovo’s Orthodox heritage, especially after March 2004, caused alarm among the international community of historians and archaeologists who specialize in the Byzantine and mediaeval Serbian periods in the region. Serbian professional institutions like Mnemosyne intensified cooperation with like-minded bodies in European nations such as France, Russia, Greece and Bulgaria. Acknowledgement of the severity of the issue, grudgingly at times, came from human rights watchdogs like the Council of Europe.

However, Menkovic recalls a somewhat difficult relationship with the CoE in relation to working with the UN administration in Kosovo. From a number of colorful incidents, a similar theme emerges: that the two preferred symbolic gestures to actual results. They were frequently annoyed with us, she recalls, because we were not the typical NGO that collects money and does nothing- we actually work, and work professionally.

Nevertheless, the activities of Mnemosyne have been noted and received international praise. Since 2002, the Pan-European Federation for Heritage (Europa Nostra) has given awards to those organizations which have made the greatest achievements to heritage protection in Europe. In March 2006, Kosovo came into the spotlight when Mnemosyne was among those awarded, for its documentation of the province’s churches.

Institutional Flaws and Failures

The UN Mission in Kosovo has been frequently found guilty by journalists, watchdog groups, human rights advocates and governmental reports of having failed right across the full spectrum of its supposed competencies. It’s therefore little surprise that its execution in terms of cultural heritage have been found wanting as well.

The basic problem now, says Mirjana Menkovic, is that the UN’s mandated decentralization of power programme in Kosovo — supposedly, something that would empower endangered minorities such as the Serbs — has actually impeded efforts for cultural heritage preservation. By decentralizing power in this regard, the UN in Pristina has made it impossible for us to gain access to vital sites, she states. The most critical sites are those located in majority or exclusively Albanian-populated municipalities- the places that are least likely to assist requests from the Serbian side.

A series of reports have confirmed the charges of flawed implementation made by Mirjana Menkovic and others. As far back as January 18, 2001, a Council of Europe report entitled Study on the state of the cultural heritage in Kosovo. Part I noted that, despite the leading role and mandate of the United Nations in the province, “there is no global vision at the political, strategic and methodological level for the management of the cultural heritage. The absence of integration of fields, the administrative compartmentalisation inhibit the consideration of proper and effective reform process to be carried out within a transitional phase and organized over a middle term period.”

The report went on to note that “in the field of cultural heritage, the international community as a whole and each potential partner (NGOs or Gos) presently act outside any concerted or coordinated framework. Each stakeholder looks to immediate objectives defined in regards to specific interest, often far from the real needs on site.” Unfortunately, this tepid situation continues to exist today.

A large part of the problem can be attributed, according to an explanatory document from Mnemosyne, to poor decision-making from the very beginning of the UN mission. Despite the correct interpretation of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague, 1954), in reality, it was against the background of UNESCO’s inefficiency during 1999 and 2000 that the precedent was set when an interim UN mission took the right to interpret an international convention in such a way as to (quoting the Council of Europe report) “ignore the interpretation endorsed by the responsible institution in a situation when its implementation offers lasting evidence of the destruction of one country’s cultural heritage.'”

However, despite the widespread destruction and vandalism of the past eight years, it is still not too late to save Kosovo’s cultural heritage. According to detailed lists compiled by Mnemosyne, there are still over 120 cultural monuments, including churches, castles, cemeteries and traditional houses that have not yet been destroyed. With sounder policy and wiser implementation, such structures may yet live on to the benefit of future researchers, tourists and other visitors. Indeed, it has long been pointed out that when Serbian medieval monuments are destroyed, those who lose out the most will be local Albanians, who thus rob themselves of significant potential tourist attractions- not particularly wise in a country with an unemployment rate of around 60 percent.

In the end, the key question becomes whether the foreign media, governments and publics will see more than rhetoric and nostalgia in the Serbian position. Among those trying to highlight this necessity is Mnemosyne, which avows that the spiritual significance of Kosovo and its holy places for the Serbs must not be understood as an anachronism or a non-European obsession with the past — it must be respected as a right of each people to maintain its traditions contributing to the preservation of cultural diversity and intangible heritage.” The future will show whether Europe’s emerging Muslim state, and the Western powers backing it, subscribe to these universal values.

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