BHHRG

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The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Vandalism not religiously motivated
HITS: 2068 | 18-08-2004, 00:10 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
 (Votes #: 0)

J.A. Cuddon’s classic Companion Guide to Jugoslavia mentions the churches and monasteries of Prizren but insists, “The [sic]church to see in Prizren is Sv. Bogorodica Ljeviška (the Virgin of the Falling Asleep). It is an interesting mixture of Serbian, Greek and Romanesque styles built with five cupolas, an ex-narthex and a belfry” Begun in 1307, it had been converted into a mosque under the Turks who whitewashed over its medieval frescoes. After 1950 restoration began after the church had been returned to Orthodox control in 1913 after the Serbian army expelled the Turkish rulers. Turkish iconoclasm damaged the frescoes but the intention was only to cover them over. Cuddon noted, “Every few inches there is a white scar on the paintings giving the effect of a heavy snow storm. This was done to make it easier for the walls to take plaster. However, between and behind the flakes of this ‘blizzard’ one can still see the frescoes which are among the finest in the fourteenth century.” Whatever Cuddon saw is now locked away behind barbed wire. Fire damage is visible on the window frames and because KFOR prevents access to the interior the exact state of the wall paintings so admired by visitors before 1999 can only be guessed at.
Cuddon notes how in the past local Albanian Muslims had respected the surviving Christian iconography revealed by the restoration: “I was in [the church] one afternoon when two elderly Albanian tribesmen came in… They spent a long time there, strolling around, looking at the frescoes and discussing them. They were almost certainly Muslims but I was much impressed by their reverence and sense of propriety and the proudly unassuming way in which they viewed works of art alien to their own religion yet a cherished element of their past.” [1] Observers from this Group have met other local Albanians more recently who had a similar respect and awe for the great beauty of these medieval churches, for instance at nearby Decani. The vandalism of 17th March was not a religious phenomenon.
Many outside commentators have discussed the Serb-Albanian dispute as a Christian-Muslim quarrel. This is deeply misleading: both societies are thoroughly secularised and, sadly, the influence of Western pop culture has cut many off from their own roots, whether Christian or Muslim. Ignorant hostility to the old and the beautiful spurred on by mafia politicians anxious to use nationalism as a tool for political purposes made the vandalism of 17th March possible. As in much of the Balkans - for instance, the destruction of the beautiful Ottoman mosque in the Bosnian town of Foca by Serb forces a decade ago - vandalism of the cultural heritage is a modern phenomenon expressive of the shallow but bitter motivations of contemporary society. It is striking that the Sinan Pasha mosque has never been open during over half a dozen visits to Prizren by BHHRG’s representatives in the past five years. Older guidebooks record the same phenomenon and how it frustrated visitors. Sadly, many modern Kosovar Albanians show little respect for or interest in their own Muslim heritage let alone the region’s Christian monuments. This suggests that the attacks on 17th March had either a racial or purely vandalistic rather than a religious motive.[2]

Rewarding the culprits

Although primitive barbed wire has been put around some the damaged churches and other Serbian buildings in Prizren, no effort has been made to secure the structures against further decay due to the effects of wind and rain. It is striking that while convoys of (re-)construction materials are being ferried into Kosovo in numbers not seen since the second half of 1999, nothing has been done for the province’s cultural heritage. Vast amounts of aid and supplies are enabling local Albanians to build whole new housing complexes of a formidable size ostensibly to replace housing destroyed in 1999. In practice, wholly new houses and settlements are springing up across Kosovo.
This massive influx of aid is transforming the landscape of the province. While Serb historical monuments and houses go un-repaired and will probably fade from view due to neglect and vandalism, hundreds of shed-loads of bright red German bricks donated by the EU and other aid agencies are facilitating a mushrooming of multi-storey buildings across the province. Where once fields, orchards or vineyards stood, now the outlines of countless three or four story houses march across the land.
This housing boom on green field sites is transforming Kosovo into a suburban sprawl. Yet there is something odd about these new houses. It is not that they are large, nor even that they are empty. It is that so many are unfinished and don’t seem designed for human habitation. They lack sewage channels and water pipes or points for electricity cables. Many have straw on the floors even of upper stories and are obviously used as stalls for animals.
Since many Albanians admit that their young people, especially young men, have gone abroad to Western Europe, there are fewer people needing these grand houses - but up they go nevertheless. Sometimes a father will point to three or four multi-story shells constructed around his old house waiting solemnly for the return of his sons. Kosovo is becoming an architectural and ecological disaster haunted by empty jerry- built structures with no obvious purpose. Dumps of refuse, redundant cars, fridges and other gadgets pock-mark the province. In two thousand years time, archaeologists and anthropologists will puzzle over the purpose of these new buildings and why people sent tons of bricks and mortar every year from northern Europe to construct them. Maybe they’ll even find the ruins of the Archangels’ monastery and be confused by carbon dating placing its un-restored remains in precisely the same era as the building boom.
On 15th July 2004, BBC Radio 4’s “Crossing Continents” provided examples of the skewed situation that exists in Kosovo today where new affluence is combined with mass unemployment. The programme’s correspondent, Tim Whewell enjoyed matey chats with 5 Albanian brothers who all live next door to each in five houses in London and who, at the same time, also own five neo-Georgian houses in Kosovo! Readers may be forgiven for thinking that owning a house in London and a place in the country or abroad - in this case Kosova - was reserved for the more affluent members of society. Despite their apparent wealth the brothers complained about the province’s high level of unemployment and the frustrating red tape which was holding back economic development.


[1] See J.A. Cuddon, The Companion Guide to Jugoslavia third edition (Collins: London, 1986), 192-93. See the description of the church and its history http://www.kosovo.com/ljeviska.html which records how German KFOR troops had in the past thwarted an attempt to blow it up with dynamite,
[2] The Serbian Orthodox Church has posted a list of churches and monastic buildings damaged as well as items plundered . http://www.spc.org.yu/Vesti-2004/04/27-4-04-e01.html#rev .For a set of photographs taken by Albanian cameramen during and after the riots in Prizren illustrating Serb buildings on fire and crowds inspecting the damage to St. George’s Church, for instance, see http://www.kosovo.com/www.besimi.com/prizreni/default.htm. It is a sort of provincial version of the Stroop report from the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.

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