How has the fate of a wretched patch of land come to determine the future of the Balkans, Nato and the world order? It is the place of an infernal cycle of revenge-ancient and modernby Tim Judah / May 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
I used to like visiting the Decani monastery in Kosovo because the Serbian monks who lived there were young and urbane: they talked about reconciliation and seemed to represent the best of Serbia. In one corner of the monastery is a tomb containing the bones of knights who fell at a fateful battle in 1389, the Battle of Kosovo Field. In another, a fresco shows a curious flaming sun. In better times, UFO enthusiasts used to visit the monastery, believing that the fresco depicted an alien spacecraft over medieval Serbia. The monks used to laugh.
The last time I was there, Serbian soldiers came to the monastery. Father Sava, the gentle monk who spoke for the brothers, ran to tell them to leave their guns at the gate. We were in the library, watching. One of the soldiers stayed outside, guarding the guns. Suddenly the afternoon peace was broken by a blast of firing. At first we thought that the soldier had been shot. In fact, a unit of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) had jumped out on to the road and attacked a van carrying local power plant workers, Serbs and Albanians. One man died.
A few days later, close to Decani, I was driving with a friend when we saw those tell-tale plumes of smoke in the clear blue sky. A village was burning. Then we saw women and children tumbling down a hill. We stopped our rental car-with Belgrade number plates-and jumped out. Horrified women moved to shield their children. They thought that we were Serbs about to gun them down.
At the monastery, the monks looked after Serbs driven from KLA-held areas. When fighting devastated local villages, they distributed food to Albanians, too. Father Sava told me that ten years ago he, like most Serbs, had believed in Milosevic. But he had heard the president’s famous speech at Kosovo Field on 28th June 1989, the 600th anniversary of the battle against the Ottomans, and realised that Milosevic was going “the wrong way.”
With hindsight we can see that the gathering on Kosovo Field, a few miles outside Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, was the beginning of a new chapter in Yugoslav and Serb history. Milosevic, who had just abolished Kosovo’s autonomy and become president of Serbia, was conjuring up the ghosts of Serbian nationalism in a way which would destroy Tito’s country, leave tens of thousands dead…