The Montreal Gazette
Sunday 27 February 2000
God's houses in ruins: The world keeps silent as Serb churches, monasteries
are destroyed in Kosovo under noses of peacekeepers
MARK ABLEY The Gazette
The Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, in the Kosovo village Banjska, was
probably not an international treasure.
As far as we know, it was just a modest house of God in an area dotted with
But no one may ever be sure. On Jan. 30, 11 kilograms of explosives were
detonated at the altar, leaving much of the building in ruins.
The explosion forms part of a sad and continuing pattern. Since a wary
peace took shape in Kosovo in June 1999, nearly 80 of its Orthodox churches
and monasteries are known to have suffered heavy damage or destruction. The
total may be higher, given that a lot of churches are located in remote
areas where few, if any, Serbs still live.
These attacks did not occur during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's
bombing campaign last spring. They have happened since the return of
Kosovo's Albanian majority. Extremists, usually assumed to be linked to the
Kosovo Liberation Army, have carried out a systematic campaign of
destruction under the eyes of international peacekeepers.
The unanswered question is why this devastation has caused so little
outcry. British and French media have paid some attention to the attacks;
but the North American media have carried few reports. Dozens of non-profit
groups are now working in Kosovo; they have said next to nothing.
"The Western world is rather fed up with the Balkans," suggested Colin
Kaiser, chief of the unit for southeast Europe and the Arab states in
UNESCO's Division of Cultural Heritage. "The wars, first in Croatia, then
in Bosnia and most recently in Kosovo, became more and more intense in
terms of damage. But the cumulative effect has been that the Western
sensibility to it all has been dulled."
True enough. But beyond that, it also seems true that after the wars of the
past decade, few Westerners dare to sympathize with anything Serbian.
Last September, Bishop Artemije, the head of the Orthodox diocese of Raska
and Prizren, charged that while the first aim of the Kosovo Albanians "is
to expel all Serbs, the second is to eradicate all traces and witnesses
that could serve as evidence that the Serbs have existed at all.
"But who and what are the witnesses? Churches, monasteries and holy places.
So they set out to destroy the witnesses, to obliterate the traces. In 212
months more than 70 monasteries and churches were burned or demolished.
Among them were the churches built by our illustrious and holy ancestors in
the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. The churches and monasteries, which
survived 500 years of Turkish occupation, did not endure two months in the
presence of a 50,000-strong international 'peacekeeping' force."
Peacekeeping troops from the United Arab Emirates, serving in the United
Nations' multinational KFOR mission, had been stationed near the Church of
St. Nicholas. But in late January they withdrew, leaving the church
unprotected. It was soon blown to pieces.
The presence of the UN soldiers has slowed the rate of destruction in
recent months, but foreign troops can provide no guarantee of safety. On
Jan. 14, for instance, the Church of St. Elias, in a village called
Cernica, was partly destroyed by explosives. It stood just 70 metres from a
checkpoint of U.S. soldiers.
Almost everyone would agree that the destruction of St. Elias's and St.
Nicholas's churches is regrettable. But what has so far escaped much
notice, particularly in North America, is that dozens of the earlier
victims were not just Serbian village churches, but buildings of great
beauty and historical significance. Among them:
- The Church of the Holy Virgin in Musutiste, built in 1315. Frescoes
painted in the following years were among the finest examples of medieval
wall-painting in the entire region. The church was looted, burned and mined
- The Church of St. Nicholas in Prizren, which is said to date to 1348 or
earlier, and which contained medieval icons. Five explosives went off,
causing extensive damage.
- The Monastery of the Holy Trinity near Musutiste, built from 1465 on. It
held a unique library of manuscripts as well as a collection of recent
icons. The monastery was first plundered, then burned and finally leveled
- The Monastery of the Holy Archangels in Gornje Nerodimjle, built in the
14th century, renewed and extended in 1700. The monastery was looted and
burned; a great pine tree, said to date from 1336, was chopped down and
burned; the cemetery was desecrated.
The stories go on and on. The pattern is undeniable - and for once, no one
is even trying to claim that Yugoslavia's notorious president, Slobodan
Milosevic, is behind it.
So far, thanks to a 24-hour guard by foreign soldiers, the greatest of all
treasures in the region - the monastic churches of Gracanica and Decani -
have survived. Writers have waxed eloquent about them for generations;
Rebecca West, for one, called Gracanica "as religious a building as
Chartres Cathedral. The thought and feeling behind it were as complex.
There is in these frescoes, as in the parent works of Byzantium, the height
Some of the buildings were jewels of European civilization. Now they are
- - -
Throughout the Balkans, politics and art, history and myth, oppression and
religion are intertwined. The ruined Orthodox buildings of Kosovo were not
only centres of worship and art; they were political symbols.
Since the mid-1980s, writes Michael Sells, professor of comparative
religion at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, "Serb nationalists have
manipulated concern for the (Kosovo) shrines to motivate, justify and
implement 'ethnic cleansing' and annihilation of centuries of non-Serb
artistic and religious monuments.
"In exploiting Serbian monasteries and the heritage they represented to
foment hate and violence, they desecrated a great Serbian heritage that
It must also be said that if the KLA is behind the devastation, it's
following a path already trod by Serbs themselves. In Sarajevo, Banja Luka
and other Bosnian cities, the Serbs blew up historic mosques and Islamic
shrines, as well as burning the Oriental Institute and the National Library.
Moreover, between March and June last year, while NATO was bombing Serbia
and hundreds of thousands of Albanian-speaking Kosovars were seeking
foreign refuge, many buildings in Kosovo were subject to deliberate Serbian
The main targets, however, do not seem to have been mosques. Serbian forces
aimed most of their destruction at Albanian houses and marketplaces.
Now the Serbs are reaping the whirlwind. Since the Kosovars poured back
into their ravaged homeland, any buildings where Serbs lived or prayed have
been vulnerable - even if they were homes built in Ottoman style during the
long centuries of Turkish rule.
Another of the recently damaged buildings is the Kosovo Battle Memorial,
built on the famous battleground of 1389. That losing fight against the
invading Turks became a cornerstone of Serbian memory and folk history. It
also became a useful symbol for Milosevic when he wanted to stir up
nationalist fervour in the 1980s.
In recent months, the Yugoslav government has bitterly protested against
the desecration of Orthodox buildings in Kosovo. But the protests have
fallen on deaf ears.
"I don't know how many times we have said this already," complained
Ljiljana Milojevic Borovcanin, first counselor at the Yugoslav embassy in
Ottawa. "We have raised the issue at the United Nations and also
bilaterally, with the countries participating in KFOR."
Those countries include Canada. About 1,450 Canadian troops are now in
Kosovo, serving mostly in the central and northern areas alongside soldiers
from Britain, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Czech Republic. The
international community has a lot at stake in the peacekeepers' success.
Under KFOR, Kosovo has been divided into five sectors, each run by a
NATO-led brigade. The peacekeeping force is made up of 42,500 soldiers from
28 countries, in addition to a further 7,500 troops based in neighbouring
countries. For each soldier in the KFOR mission, only about two Serbs
remain in Kosovo.
Borovcanin says she has spoken to Canadian officials about the continuing
destruction of Orthodox churches, "and the response was always diplomatic.
The Canadian government says it regrets all the damage, but at no time will
it take any action.
"Yet it's the non-implementation of the UN resolution that has enabled this
barbarism to occur."
She was alluding to Security Council Resolution 1244. Under its terms, the
mandate of the KFOR troops involves "demilitarizing the Kosovo Liberation
Army (KLA) and other armed Kosovo Albanian groups establishing a secure
environment in which refugees and displaced persons can return home in
safety (and) ensuring public safety and order."
UNESCO has been in touch with KFOR leaders, Kaiser told The Gazette.
"We provided them with lists of heritage sites that were much longer than
what they could actually handle. We were told that they have many
responsibilities, and can't possibly station soldiers in front of every
Speaking from Pristina last week, KFOR spokesman Lt.-Commander Philip Anido
said that "KFOR and its soldiers have static guards on the sites that are
active. Some of the churches are guarded by moving patrols, and it's up to
the brigade commander to decide on the level of sensitivity and the level
About 800,000 Albanian refugees are thought to have fled Kosovo before and
during the war last spring. Perhaps it's not surprising that Canada - a
full participant in the NATO bombing campaign - should be reluctant to
speak out publicly against the Kosovo Albanians whom it spent so much time,
effort and money in helping.
Canada even contributed $200,000 to help pay for a cultural festival in
Kosovo last September. On hand along with international stars like Mikhail
Baryshnikov, Meryl Streep and Elton John was the Cape Breton choir Men of
the Deeps, flown in to sing coal-mining songs.
"Canada is helping rebuild Kosovo," Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy
said at the time. "That rebuilding effort must not only focus on bricks and
mortar; we must also help rebuild the human spirit."
But as elements of the KLA were quick to realize, the best way to crush the
spirit of Kosovo's remaining Serbs was to destroy significant chunks of
their bricks and mortar. The day after the cultural festival ended, the
14th-century church of Saints Cosma and Damian in the village of Zociste
was razed. The church was noted for its frescoes of Old Testament prophets.
On the same day, near the town of Vitina, the remnants of the 14th-century
monastery of the Holy Archangel Gabriel were destroyed by explosives. The
monastery had already been looted and burned.
So much for the human spirit.
- - -
What is surprising, if not downright shocking, is that the destruction of
churches and monasteries in Kosovo has aroused so little attention from
international groups that are supposedly dedicated to the preservation of
To an outsider, it looks very much as though the ancient buildings and
artworks are somehow tainted by their association with present-day Serbia.
When it comes to the monasteries and churches of Kosovo, silence has become
an unofficial policy.
Consider the following:
- The World Monuments Fund (a private, non-profit group based in New York
and funded extensively by American Express) placed no Kosovo buildings on
its recent list of the 100 most endangered sites around the world.
The fund has given money for architectural restoration and preservation to
165 projects in 51 countries - not including Kosovo. Its Web site includes
no mention of Kosovo, and a request for an interview with its president,
Bonnie Burnham, was turned down.
- If you believe the Web site of the International Centre for the Study of
the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, this awkwardly named
group is a "catalyst for action." But it has remained silent about the
dangers to cultural property in Kosovo. An E-mail asking for an explanation
- At UNESCO's headquarters in Paris last July, a six-day official meeting
took place under the auspices of the Convention Concerning the Protection
of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Member nations debated the
threats to heritage sites in no fewer than 55 countries, including Canada
(a proposed open-pit mine near Jasper National Park came under scrutiny);
but Kosovo received only a brief general mention.
UNESCO did sponsor two missions of inquiry to Kosovo in July and November.
Yet Colin Kaiser, who led one of them, admitted that "UNESCO is not tooled
to work quickly for emergencies."
Part of the problem, he said, is that proper documentation is not available
for Kosovo. The agency intends to resume work there in co-operation with a
Swedish group called Cultural Heritage Without Borders.
"But we can't become involved in saying who did what," Kaiser emphasized.
"UNESCO cannot take sides."
- Last April, at the height of the war in Kosovo, a statement went out from
the International Committee of the Blue Shield (a joint endeavour that
unites librarians, archivists, museum curators and preservation officials).
The statement expressed a generalized "concern about all damage to the
cultural heritage of the peoples of Yugoslavia." Once the war was over, the
Blue Shield Committee had nothing more to say.
Last week, Manus Brinkman, the secretary-general of the International
Council of Museums, told The Gazette that "ICBS has not issued any new
appeals, because the first one is still as valuable as ever."
Asked about the response to the April statement, Brinkman said that "there
have been a lot of positive reactions and the appeal invoked much
discussion. Sadly enough, there was no reaction from the parties involved
in the fighting in Kosovo, neither from the official Serbian or Albanian
side, nor from NATO."
- Canada is one of many nations represented on ICOMOS, the International
Council on Monuments and Sites, whose aim is "the conservation of the
world's historic monuments and sites." The Web site of ICOMOS Canada
includes statements from 1997 onward. None mentions Kosovo.
The Canadian group's administrative secretary, Victoria Angel, said that
ICOMOS Greece has tried to raise awareness about the cultural monuments in
Kosovo. But Greece was not one of the NATO members that bombed Yugoslavia;
and anyway, a little-known non-profit group based in Athens can scarcely be
expected to kindle public attention in other countries.
"North America is still stuck with the message that there's a good guy and
a bad guy in Kosovo," said Dinu Bumbaru, the head of Heritage Montreal and
a vice-president of ICOMOS Canada. "And what the good guy does at the end
of the movie is fine with us."
Bumbaru noted that while a great deal of information is available about the
Kosovo destruction, especially on the Internet, "there's no communications
campaign. Frankly I just wonder if, in the West, this is of interest."
In 1992, following Yugoslavian attacks on the magnificent Croatian city
Dubrovnik during a previous Balkan war, Bumbaru led a UNESCO-sponsored
mission to assess the damage. International funds were provided to help
Croatia, and Dubrovnik has largely been rebuilt.
But Croatia was widely seen as a victim, so, in the case of Dubrovnik, it
was politically easy for other countries to do the right thing.
The Serbs, on the other hand, were widely seen as aggressors. Now they're
outnumbered in Kosovo nearly 20 to 1; and in Kaiser's words, "the problem
is that ultimately, the defence of anything depends upon local people.
"Ideally, both Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo will realize that the loss of
the monasteries and churches, like the loss of the mosques and Ottoman
houses, will impoverish the whole area."
But that's a remote ideal. In the meantime, there appears to be no
political will outside Kosovo to stand up for an Orthodox heritage so
fraught with beauty, so redolent of pain.
- Reporter Mark Abley can be reached at (514) 987-2555 or by E-mail at