Kosovo Tensions Put More Than People at Risk

A picturesque valley in the western province of Kosovo is home to the largest and most urgently preserved monastery in Serbia. The 14th century Visoki Decani monastery has not only survived the passage of time but also the ravages of war. Even though around half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks after the war, the 100,000 who stayed are still targeted by sporadic violence. Stoning of police and attacks on individuals are not uncommon.

In 1998, Slobodan Milosevic, who was president at the time, led troops against Albanian forces in an effort to reclaim parts of Kosovo. The following year, NATO airstrikes in Kosovo ended the war when the United Nations intervened, offering a treaty between the two sides.

But ongoing tensions and violence between Kosovo's Serbian and Albanian populations don't simply affect the people who live there -- there's also a real physical threat to that region's centuries-old churches and monasteries.

If you wish to admire the Visoki Decani monastery, you must first pass a heavily armored military checkpoint and a thick 600-year-old wall. Inside lies the pearl of the Serbian Orthodox Church, such an important symbol of an endangered cultural heritage that its protection is at the top of the agenda of the latest diplomatic effort in the Balkans.

Seven years after that NATO intervention, ethnic Albanians and Serbian officials met a few days ago in Vienna to discuss the protection of the region's religious sites thus far guaranteed by international peacekeepers.

Nestled at the foot of the Prokletije Mountains in western Kosovo, on meadows that shepherds roam with their flocks, the Visoki Decani monastery seems centuries removed from modern politics. The mostly young monks lead a life that has changed little since medieval times, with one exception.

Father Sava juggles his mobile phone with his computer hooked up to the Internet, surrounded by piles of newspapers -- essential tools for this outspoken activist, who has been telling the outside world about his church and the plight of minority Serbs in the UN-governed former Yugoslav province.

"Living in a medieval setting does not mean accepting a medieval mentality. The Internet enables us to speak from the pulpit of a keyboard," said Father Sava, whose use of modern technology earned him the nickname "cybermonk," he told me the first time I met him in July 2000.

Six years later, not much has changed. While sipping coffee under the wooden porch with two Serbs who the monastery is hosting because they cannot return to their homes due to the ongoing still-ethnic tensions with the Albanians. Father Sava regrets the slow progress in building a truly multiethnic, respectful Kosovo.

"The monastery is a thorn in the eye for some people, he explains. "Symbolically, it is very important as a Christian monument, which proves that Serbs have been living here for centuries, and Kosovo has always been multiethnic, not monoethnic."

Life in Kosovo has been a struggle for Serbs since June 1999, when NATO air bombing halted Belgrade's repression against independence-seeking ethnic Albanians. Since then, this region has been a United Nations protectorate.

With the region still formally part of Serbia, negotiations aimed at resolving its status began in February. Ethnic Albanians say they will settle for nothing less than complete independence. And Serbs won't surrender land they consider the cradle of their civilization.

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