Friday 4 March at 20:15 CET ON Europe by Satellite

Kosovo: one year after - cultural heritage hostage to final status

One year after the violence which erupted in March 2004, when mobs of ethnic Albanians set alight Serbian Orthodox churches and Serb-owned homes in Kosovo, this documentary explores the situation of cultural heritage sites in the province.

What happened since March 2004? Who is in charge of rebuilding destroyed sites?
The dispute over cultural heritage is caught up in the dispute over the final status of Kosovo. It became a tool to prove who Kosovo belongs to. This is not the right approach to preservation of cultural heritage which should be seen as a common good, says UNESCO.

This documentary was filmed in February 2005 in Prishtina, Prizren, Decani, Gracanica and Belgrade.

Duration and language versions:
Item 1: English version (16`)
Item 2: International version (16`)
Serbo-Croatian version available on request to

The production of this documentary was made possible with the kind support of the German government through IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen e.V.)

The Holy Archangels monastery near Prizren in Kosovo looks more like military camp then a place of prayer. German KFOR peacekeepers have toughened up security after the monastery was raided and set on fire a year ago. Father German Vucicevic heads the small monastic community. The monks were evacuated during the attack, and so escaped alive, but the quarters housing the chapel and many relics were completely destroyed. Father German has no doubt as to why the monastery was the target of the Albanian rioters.The Sveti Arhangeli Monastery near Prizren surrounded by barbwire and KFOR armed personnel carriers

Father German Vucicevic, interview:

“There are very few historical monuments witnessing Albanian nationhood. On the other hand, there are many Serbian monasteries, sanctuaries and monuments that speak against their theories and aspirations. So it’s easy to understand why we are their target.”

Plans in place to protect monasteries proved to be completely ineffective last March. When the attack started, KFOR simply withdrew.

Father German walks by the remains of the monastery

German Captain R., interview:

“Today we have a lot of protection devices and we have a new plan for the protection here and new systems and I don’t think that it will happen again what happened in March 2004.”

German KFOR soldiers
The part of the monastery that was burnt last March, was not the most ancient part. This place is most famous for the ruins of a XIVth century church, an endowment from the Serbian Tsar Dusan. The Tsar’s remains were also discovered here in 1927, and transferred to St Mark’s Church in Belgrade. The tomb is covered with snow, but since it was found, Father German says this has been a holy place for Serbs both from this area and elsewhere. However, apart from a few monks, there are no longer any Serbs in and around Prizren.

A view to the monastery

The monastery is just a few kilometers from the centre of Prizren. The city is dominated by the Sinan Pasha mosque, built in 1615. The Friday noon prayer attracts many worshippers.

Remains of the old church covered by snow

Father German uncovers the tomb under the snow

Fountain in the center of Prizren

Amir Alia is one of the rare muezzins who still calls people to prayer himself rather than playing a recording. He looks after the mosque, although parts of it have fallen into serious disrepair through age and neglect.

Sinan Pasa’s Mosque

Crowded Mosque

Amir Alia, muezzin at Sinan Pasha Mosque, Prizren

There have been a lot of promises about the rebuilding of this mosque,. But nothing concrete has been done.

Amir sings, calls people to prayer

By a quirk of historical fate, the columns and the stones used to build the mosque were taken from the ruins of the church of Tsar Dusan.

In Prizren, the other recognizable monument from the Ottoman period is the Hammam, built in the XVI century by Mehmet Pasa. Inside the Hammam, which is now a museum, there are visible signs of decay.

Exterior of the Hammam

Interior of the Hammam

Ahmet Abibi is the Director of the Institute for Monuments Preservation in Prizren

Abib Ahmeti, Director of the Institute for Monuments Preservation in Prizren

In this city, a number of monuments were built, which have, with time, come to form a common heritage base. This heritage has a special value, and this city can be considered as a city-museum.

The Orthodox Serbian part of the “city museum’s” heritage has been the target of deliberate acts of destruction since 1999. In its first report on Kosovo in 2003, UNESCO rang the alarm bell – a unique cultural heritage was in serious jeopardy. The report looked at Prizren and recommended the simultaneous reconstruction of a number of Orthodox and Islamic monuments,as a sign of good will.

A view to the parts of town with burned houses and churches
But instead of this, in March 2004 Kosovo was engulfed in a wave of violence. The remaining Serb enclaves were targeted along with the most tangible symbols of Serbian presence – churches and monasteries.

File footage of the March 2004 violence

Footage of burning houses...

In Prizren the Serbian quarter was burnt down, along with all Orthodox churches. In the very heart of the city, the Church of the Holy Virgin of Ljeviska was put on fire. The flames swallowed frescoes of incalculable value, the most famous of which was “The Christ with the Virgin Mary” from the XIV century. UNESCO says that this loss can be compared in importance with the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

Photograph of the burned fresco
Don Shon Zefi is the leader of the Albanian Catholic community in Prizren. He condemns all the attacks on Serbian churches in Kosovo and says destruction is not in the Albanians’ nature. Don Zefi suspects that foreign elements might have taken part in the rampage. Through such actions , he says, Albanians might lose their opportunity for independence. However, Don Zefi claims that many Orthodox churches, including the Holy Virgin of Ljeviska, were originally Catholic.

Don Son Zefi during the mass in the Catholic church in Prizren

Don Shon Zefi, Albanian catholic priest

“It was turned into an Orthodox church upon the arrival of the Serbs, and later into a Mosque when the Turks came. It ultimately became an Orthodox church again and its present condition is regrettable; we will see what the future will bring. We have no aspirations to retake it, as it doesn’t suit us for practical reasons – Catholic churches need to be bigger.

For Bishop Artemije, the Serbian Bishop of Kosovo, Serb monasteries and monuments in Kosovo are the strongest historical proof to the international community that Serbs have inhabited this area for centuries and that they have the right to continue to live there.

Bishop Artemije, Serbian Bishop of Kosovo

“They simply decided to wipe them out from the face of the earth, at the same time spreading propaganda and a new vision of history, claiming that Serbs had never lived here unless as occupiers, which is a historical nonsense.”

The UNESCO report mentions an ongoing trend to re-write history to suit political objectives.

After years of conflict and mistrust between Serbs and Albanians, the indifference and the contempt for each other’s culture are harsh realities of daily life in Kosovo.

Edi Sukriu, Historian

“Unfortunately, in the past, but also today, cultural heritage was used as a political tool. That’s why all those who passed through Prizren in the past have tried to erase their predecessor’s traces to leave their own.”

The Decani monastery, built in the XIV century, remained untouched by the March 2004 attacks . It remains in relatively good condition, under the discreet guard of the Italian KFOR troops. The monastic serenity gives a feeling of having travelled 700 years back in time. Among the sumptuous frescoes in the church’s interior is the famous presentation of the Nemanjic medieval dynasty. The founder Serbian King Nemanja can be seen at the base of the painting.

Gracanica Monastery
The Decani monastery is a metaphor of Kosovo’s contradiction: While Serbs see their historical roots here, the present is mostly Albanian. Apart from the thirty Serbian monks who live here, everywhere else around the monastery it is populated exclusively by Albanians.

People on the streets of Prizren
In June 2004 UNESCO put the Decani monastery on its world heritage list. Marie-Paule Roudil, who headed the second UNESCO mission in Kosovo, says that such international recognition of the monastery’s value is one means of protecting a heritage targeted by deliberate destruction.Exterior of the Decani Monastery

Pictures of fresco in the monastery interior

Marie Paule Roudil, UNESCO

“We didn’t create a spirit that the cultural heritage is common to whole population all over the world. There is no such thing as the cultural heritage of one community and the heritage of the other one. For us, cultural heritage is only one, and this is the expression of cultural diversity but also the expression of dialogue”

Siege of UNESCO in Paris

Dialogue is precisely what is lacking in Kosovo. The dispute over cultural heritage became inextricably caught up in the dispute over the final status. Its value becomes secondary if is simply used to try to prove who Kosovo belongs to. There’s also argument about the reconstruction of damaged monuments. The Kosovo Culture Minister says that the perpetrators of the March riots were frustrated and manipulated people and that those events are not a genuine picture of Kosovo.

A view to Prizren from the fortress above the city

Astrit Haraqija, Culture Minister, Kosovo provisional institutions

“We have foreseen 4,2 million euro for the reconstruction in 2005. We will start the works, even if the Orthodox Bishop Artemije backed off from the Memorandum which he had initially signed. He did this because he wanted full control over the means and the money, and he didn’t accept the fact that the reconstruction of orthodox churches would be done with the budget of the government of Kosovo”.

People walking in the fortress
Bishop Artemije insists that the Serbian Orthodox Church has to have the final say in the reconstruction. He says it is impossible to concede this task to anyone else. For him, the Kosovo Culture Ministry doesn’t exist, because it’s not a multi-ethnic institution.

Gracanica monastery, barbwire fence

Bishop Artemije, interview:

«There are no Serbs there; my people have been driven out, two thirds of the Kosovo Serbs. When the return of all refugees is allowed as foreseen under UN Resolution 1244 – when they come back to their homes and live freely and when their return is sustainable with normal living conditions, then we can create multiethnic institutions in which we can all take part.”

For government representatives in Belgrade, there is no problem with Kosovo institutions gradually becoming involved in the reconstruction. But the Serbian Orthodox Church should be first in line, followed by the Serbian Institute for Monuments Preservation, and international organizations.

Belgrade, city views

Nebojsa Covic,
Chairman of the Coordination Center for Kosovo and Metohija:

“It is only through such a coordinated action that we can move forward in the protection of the Serbian cultural heritage. They are trying to politicize things by insisting on the presence of their ministers and wanting to be the ones to determine the priorities. Priorities must be determined by the owner, and the user, and that is the Serbian Orthodox Church.”

On the streets in Belgrade, people voice either indifference or fall back on national stereotypes.

vox pop Belgrade:

“Our national identity is linked to Kosovo”
“I have other problems to think about, so I’m not exactly too interested in this matter”
“It is our national cradle, but the reality is very grim”.

People in the streets of Belgrade

In the meantime, to a rare tourist in Prizren, the cultural heritage they see is a sad mixture of neglect and destruction.

Vox pop Prizren:

“When we entered the old town, we saw the burnt houses and churches, and that was really a shock to us.”

Burning houses in Prizren

People on the streets of Prizren

The sight of all this seems to shock only foreigners. For Albanians and Serbs, the only thing that counts is their own respective plight. Each believes the plight of the other is well deserved.

So with this background, is there any point in rebuilding heritage sites, without first changing attitudes ?

Mirjana Menkovic, Centre for Protection of cultural heritage of Kosovo and Metohija, Belgrade

“It would be very good if the most extreme voices on both sides could be excluded, so that normal life, and solving the problems linked to normal life, could start.”

Edi Shukriu, Historian

“The reconstruction should not only be done by the inhabitants, not only by the city, which doesn’t have the means, and even not only by Kosovo. It should be seen from a wider perspective, from the protection of UNESCO as a city which contains the heritage of the region.”

But even with the best reconstruction plans, some losses can never be recovered.

Marie-Paule Roudil, UNESCO

“You could see such a beautiful treasure destroyed, in the end for nothing, but forever. So, UNESCO is there to bring hope, to intervene as a technical agency and we are ready to do our best”

In Velika Hoca, a village which is another Serbian enclave in Kosovo, people link their hopes for the future to the restoration of cultural heritage. A joint project with the NGO Mnemosyne and the European Agency for Reconstruction should restore the unique traditional architecture of this village and safeguard it from further decay.

Jovan Djuricic, inhabitant of Velika Hoca

“With the improving political situation, Velika Hoca could become one of the most important tourist sites in Kosovo and I believe that travelers would have a great deal to see in Velika Hoca.”

A view to Velika Hoca, houses, the church

Waiting for the political situation to improve could take a long time.

UNESCO’s report suggests that, the rebuilding of cultural heritage could also provide the opportunity for the two communities in Kosovo to exchange the first signs of mutual respect and to start building trust.

A process which clearly hasn’t started yet.

Velika Hoca, people on the streets