Politika strikes a new note
by Andras Riedlmayer/Politika
The Belgrade daily Politika is not usually the best source for news about Kosovo, but Wednesday's issue contains encouraging news from the village of Zociste, in western Kosovo, where the local Albanian community has set up a committee to rebuild the Serbian Orthodox monastery of St. Cosmas and Damian, destroyed in an Albanian revenge attack immediately after the end of the war in June 1999.
As the article points out, before the war the monastery at Zociste, a mixed village (80 percent Albanian, 20 percent Serb) south of Orahovac, had been traditionally protected by the local Albanian community and had been a place of pilgrimage and healing for local people, both Christians and Muslims.
The mosque in Zociste, place of worship for the Albanian majority population of the village, had been burned down on 17 July 1998 by Serbian policemen and by a group of local Serbs led by Andjelko Kolasinac, chairman of the municipal assembly of the nearby town of Orahovac.
On 21 July 1998, the ancient monastery was occupied by KLA guerrillas, who held Zociste for the following month without harming the historic buildings. An AFP reporter visited the monastery at the beginning of August 1998 to see how it had fared at the hands of the Albanian rebels.
‘Serbs in the region claimed the rebels' red and white flag was flying from the bell tower. But this was not the case. On the contrary, the walls, the floors, monks' cells, the tiny chapel, everything was exactly as the monks left it. Apart of course from the occupants. "The orders from our superiors are strict", the local KLA chief confirmed. "We guard the monastery so that no one can get in. A soldier is stationed at both the front and back doors, and we make daily checks to ensure that nothing has gone missing. Judge for yourself." Inside the shadowy courtyard, the washing still hung in the breeze. In the dormitory, the beds were made and the clothes stored neatly away on the shelves. The VW Beetle hadn't moved. Only the sound of bees on the hunt for nectar near their beehive broke the silence. Inside the church, there was no trace of disruption, let alone the war. The many icons, candles, offerings, crosses and the altar had not been touched. [...] "We want our holy places respected, so we respect those belonging to the Serbs", declared the KLA guerrilla, whose cutlass and handlebar moustache enhanced his martial air. "But go and see the mosques. They're being systematically destroyed." His officer cut him short. "The Serb vanguard is only 600 metres away, the attack could come at any moment, and we might have to retreat. If they shell us, everything will be destroyed. We hope that they will return to live among us", he said, "but that just isn't possible at the moment."
(for the full AFP report, see: http://listserv.acsu.buffalo.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind9808&L=justwatch-l&P=R28584&D=1&H=0&O=D&T=1
On 20 August 1998, the KLA withdrew from the village and Serbian police forces re-entered Zociste; a message from Father Sava confirmed that: ‘There is no damage in the monastery and the church was not desecrated, thank God.’ However a number of local Serbs from the Orahovac area had been abducted by the KLA. While some were released by the KLA to the ICRC, others were never accounted for.
On 11 March 1999, KLA forces reportedly fired a mortar and a machine-gun at the village. An OSCE observer team visited Zociste on 13-14 March and found that both the KLA and Serb forces operating from the village had committed violations of the cease-fire agreement.
During the 24 March - 9 June 1999 air war, a major checkpoint used by Serbian troops and paramilitaries was located just outside Zociste; a local unit of Arkan's Tigers militia, led by Zoran Stanisic, was based in the area. The local Albanian population was expelled, their houses burned, and there were reports of mass killings and other atrocities committed against them by Serbian forces.
After the end of the war, as Serbian forces withdrew and KFOR peacekeeping troops moved into the area, a mass grave/exposed bodies site containing 117 bodies was reported for Zociste. On 17 and 21 June 1999, a mass grave site was identified by KFOR forces consisting of 55 bodies, 30 metres behind a rubbbish dump in Zociste.
During the same week in June, the 55 houses owned by Serbs in Zociste were burned down along with the monastery buildings. The 200 approx. Serb residents of the village had fled to the Serb enclave in nearby Orahovac immediately after the armistice (Natasa Kandic, ‘Post-War Orahovac’, HCL special report #14, 10 August 1999).
Eighteen months have passed since the end of the war. While some of the wartime damage to homes and businesses has been repaired, there has been little encouraging news about progress in repairing intercommunal relations. If the report in Politika turns out to be true, it would be a significant positive development.
Extraordinary Development in Zociste near Orahovac:
Albanians to restore the monastery of Zociste
M. Laketic, Kosovska Mitrovica
The Albanian population of Zociste in Orahovac municipality, reports Archpriest Milenko Dragicevic from the neighboring village of Velika Hoca, has founded an committee for the restoration of the monastery of Zociste in their village. This monastery, whose Church of the Holy Healers Cosmas and Damian is mentioned as a Christian holy site dating back to the 8th century, was first burnt down and then blown up by the Albanians of Zociste on 17 June 1999.
In the fall of 1999, four Albanian young men who participated in the destruction of this holy site became psychologically ill. One of them died seven months later and the number of Albanian destroyers from Zociste and neighboring Opterusa who became ill increased to 12, the Albanians in the committee to restore the monastery recently told Father Milenko. The locals are convinced that the Albanian people have fallen under a curse.
Historians claim that the Church of the Holy Healers Cosmas and Damian was built at the beginning of the 8th century and restored several times. The most recent renovation with a semi-round vault and a wide narthex was built on the foundations of the old church. The donors (13th century) were senior church officials as this monastery was the seat of the diocese at that time.
During the past ten centuries, this monastery has been the sanctuary of the ill who came worship before the holy relics. After the arrival of the Turks in the Balkans and the Islamization of the Albanians, the locals of Zociste and all of Metohija honoured the tradition of protecting this monastery. The monastery brotherhood, in accordance with the wishes of the Muslim faithful, permitted Albanians who were ailing to sleep on the divan before the chest containing the holy relics and prayed for their recovery.
The last time reporters of Politika visited the monastery in September 1998 they were witness to an Albanian pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Healers when the prior at that time, Jovan, prayed for the recovery of an Albanian woman.
However, ten days later, Albanian terrorists kidnapped Prior Jovan and seven monks. They were released four days later by the kidnappers following the intervention of OSCE and the International Red Cross. At that time the monastery was not physically damaged; however, the church was desecrated and all valuables were looted from the residence hall and the church treasury.
After release from a private jail for Serbs which the terrorists had set up in Malisevo, the brotherhood spent the night in Gracanica and, without a moment's hesitation, again returned to Zociste. Prior Jovan was soon appointed as head of the monastery of Celije while Father Romilo was appointed to the position of prior.
After the burning down and destruction of the monastery of Zociste, the monks were temporarily sent to Crna Reka where they and other monasteries of the Diocese of Raska and Prizren heard word of the intent to restore the church which made them happy and filled them with hope of returning to the holy site which was spiritually active for 14 centuries.
Politika (Belgrade), 21 February 2001