Gracanica and Bishop Artmije
We bid farewell to our hospitable hosts in Velika Hoca, and head eastward, back towards Gracanica, where we are scheduled to have an evening meeting with His Grace, Bishop Artemije of Raska-Prizren. Although his Diocese stretches beyond the limits of the province, the diminutive hierarch is by far best recognized as the top prelate of the martyred province and its Orthodox Christian flock, leading it closely while carrying their Cross up the Golgotha, with an apparent mixture of bitterness, resilience, and understated hope in the Resurrection beyond. His Grace was out of town two days ago when we were first here, and even though it is already late in the day and the arduous trek back to the capital still ahead of us, we patiently wait in the tactfully appointed residence living room, chatting with his monastic assistants. The decor is simple - my eye catches the small but prominently placed Greek flag on his desk to the side, flanking a Serbian one and signifying the selfless help the fellow Orthodox brethren from the south have continuously provided over these troubled years.
Some in our party have had a longer history of communication with His Grace - certainly Nenad did over the years of Blago work in the province which he always wholeheartedly supported, and at least Dragan as well; my first contact with him harks back to the SUC Washington convention in the fall of 2004, as I interpreted for him during a panel discussion. This was merely months after the bloody March pogrom of Serbs and other loyal citizens by organized Albanian mobs, right before international peacekeeper eyes. The archpastor was visibly bitter, outspoken and defiant, and many of those that knew him from before, commented then on this stark change. As I pondered these thoughts, Bishop Artemije finally came in. Warm, thoughtful, soft spoken - he greeted us warmly, as a prelate should (though not all of them do). His radiant demeanor puts us all at home and ease, as we go over themes ranging first from courteous on to more substantive, over light refreshments served by the helpful staff. But the warm twinkle in his blue eyes and calm voice could not hide the acrimony and disappointment of his message, disgust at the hypocrisy of the internationals he was entrusted to, the sense of betrayal, the gravity of his predicament. I had followed the events over the years, and I vividly recall the image he had prior to 2004: almost universally hailed (especially in the West) as a voice of reason, moderation and democracy, even chastised by some Serb hard-liners all the while, he had genuinely sought compromise and dialogue, apparently often going out on a limb to witness the Christian values that his position stood for and he personally believed in. But these graces were not reciprocated, and somewhere along the line the Christian sense of righteousness and justice, in this world, may have prevailed over love for thy enemy - or perhaps the sheer shock of the March atrocity, at the head of his flock and before his eyes, may have taken its toll. In this sense, his quandary might have reflected that which has befallen the nation as a whole for the past 20 or so years reconciling seemingly competing Christian values, in this, real, world. He was now viewed by many as perhaps an obstinate hardliner, often an obstacle to progress - however defined - in the Kosmet conflict. Yet, I never forgot the salutary lesson of history, the context and development of this attitude. Certainly, the calm and mild manner in which he elucidated his at times outspoken theses indicated that this was, if anything, a deliberate and matured stance. An instructive meeting for all, I'm sure, though we leave probably with more questions than answers. But time is up. His Grace bids us a warm farewell, as do the rest of the staff, and we get back into our faithful vehicle, for the long trek back to Belgrade.
Return and Conclusion
The exit from the province involves another administrative line crossing, this time to the northeast at Merdare, and without the staged passing through the Serbian-controlled North. Still everything is routine, and we head towards Prokuplje, the closest city in Serbia proper en route to home. We stop there for a classic fast-food-grill snack, to keep us going for the remaining drive. The food is spicy and authentic; I look around as I savor it. The hour is late, admittedly, but the sparsely filled streets of this seemingly sleepy town stand in rather stark contrast to some of the bustling scenes of towns and markets with Kosovo Albanian majorities. Eerie and unpleasant thoughts - the 'white plague' and other negative demographic trends played out into the future - try to creep in, but as the rest of our group, I'm too tired to think... I brush those aside in favor of the general and positive feeling of a mission accomplished and a valuable experience lived first-hand.
Almost four hours later, our van pulls in front of my apartment building. The hour is almost identical - crack of dawn of a long, early summer day - as in the opening paragraph. Seventy-two hours later, I look at the same scenery of the sleepy cupola of the Patriarchate, and the bell tower of the adjoining cathedral church emerging from the dark, and remember the questions that had struck me as I was waiting for the van. Was this just a dream? Even as I head up to sneak back in bed for some short hours of rest before the day breaks for real, I become sure it is not - it's a reality, and one I'm thankful to have been woken up to... A reality for all that identify with the Serbian nation, and even beyond. Perhaps all too harsh a reality for most of those that live it every day, but still an open book inviting all Serbs and men and women of good will to read it and savor as they please.
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