The two of us are finally in Prizren, as I accompany Sinisa on his courier service for the day. Our first stop is to visit Omer, an ethnic Gorani, at his downtown travel agency, in what I later learn is considered the Gorani quarter. A stocky gray-haired man,with a typical weathered look above his age tells his story: working for state-owned companies here, then temporarily for some years in Germany, returning and relegated to limited options at present; it fits a familiar pattern. I strike a conversation with him and his female colleague; they speak in a sort of archaic Serbian dialect, with a hint of a Macedonian accent. We talk about their southern enclave and stronghold of Dragas, and the traditional St. George Day (Djurdjevdan) gathering that brings compatriots from all over, with preserved intact elements of Christian tradition, despite the latter-day Islamization that has occurred here. In time it becomes clear that, at least in a broader sense - these people share a Serbian identity that they are proud and cognizant of. As we talk on the sun-drenched sidewalk, a well-dressed gentleman walks by on the other side, and the lady greets him with 'Dobar dan, profesore!'; he greets back in kind. I'm a bit astonished one can use Serbian in the open, not to mention that there are 'Serbian professors' of any sort here; I am told that he teaches at a local community college of sorts that caters to Serbian-speaking population. In general, it becomes clear that there still remains a resident loyal Serbian population in Prizren - underprivileged and embattled, to be sure - but based on the adjoining Dragas-Gora hinterland, and maintaining a loyalty and connection to its Serbian roots and mainstream, at this southern outpost of formal Serbian territory. Something to recognize, cherish and maintain.
We take a short stroll to the city center, crossing the Bistrica river that bisects town, down the busy market street and past the monumental old mosque, whose shining marble was reputed to have been taken by the invading Ottomans from the nearby church of the Holy Archangels. We arrive at the main square, Sedrvan, a name that once elicited associations of cultural diversity and richness. Street life is bustling at the square, we sit down at a recommended sweet shop, and pick the traditional southern sweet drink, 'boza' - a largely forgotten art further north, maintained by downtown Belgrade's famous Pelivan and a few other Gorani 'poslasticar' artisans. We order in Serbian with no hassle - I'm not even sure of the nationality of the shop proprietor - and shortly enjoy the lively bazaar-like atmosphere, continue the leisurely chat about the lifestyle and how Omer makes ends meet. Lest one relax too much and forget where we are, a monument to UCK fighters and a huge banner advertising upcoming 'liberation day' festivities stand in my full view, despite the passing crowds. There is much to see in Prizren, though our time is limited. We pass by Bogorodica Ljeviska - 'The Ljevis Mother of God' church - a declared UNESCO marvel and another victim of cultural genocide. Tucked in the narrow inner city streets, it is hard to fully appreciate its monumental outside, and we are not in a position to survey the inside today; a couple of photographs remain as a memento of the moment and visit.
We go then to another Serbian landmark standing amidst the daily life of bustling commerce and trade - 'vladicanski (episkopski)' dvor - the episcopal seat that made its mark with some of the infamous photographs of destruction and desecration during the March 2004 pogrom. It is supervised now by plainclothes Albanian security, who politely ask us about our identity and mission, then escort us into the site where we explore on our own. The monumental church itself, the living quarters, the auxiliary buildings - all have been either restored or getting there through international-led programs, yet there is no living soul around, and the silence of that absence is deafening. To be fair, the church cupola appears to have been built to match faithfully enough the rest of the edifice, which is encouraging enough - after all, the monumental church in neighboring Djakovica has been similarly bombed, then simply razed and erased. Yet, the outside stucco texture appear off, compared to the original grey stone. My companion explains how the bishop does not plan for now to return here, and generalizes to me the quandary of the situation, which probably reflects the essence of many dilemmas among he embattled Kosovo Serb community - whether to take certain imperfect solutions handed down by the occupying administration and work on exploiting and improving them, or tow the hard line in hopes of forcing their hand to facilitate better offers. But he is quick to add that just having someone move in soon and provide persistent, 'lived-in' presence - perhaps just a grounds caretaker for now - could go a long way to restoring confidence in the ultimate utility of such rebuilding efforts and provide a powerful deterrent to would-be new attackers. The argument appears sensible, but this debate has been raging for a while, and we would see shades of it during the balance of our trip, as well as in the weeks and months that followed, in somewhat more general terms.
Monastery of the Holy Archangels
Having completed our business in Prizren, there was enough time for a trip to the Church of the Holy Archangels, less than two miles up the Bistrica river. The drive along the river gorge is actually short, but full of anticipation - this is, after all, among the more isolated and southernmost outposts of current Serbia, and - perhaps more importantly - of one of the more infamous sites affected by the 2004 pogrom: the grounds and its brotherhood were forcefully evacuated by German KFOR, leaving space for a 12-hour rampage of a deadly Albanian mob. Shortly afterwards, the brotherhood under abbot Benedict returned, to tent-based and other makeshift lodging - to begin the arduous task of rebuilding the monastery. Upon arrival, we are greeted with myriad KFOR military hardware. The tension is apparent in a strange paradox. The German KFOR continues to be on charge of protecting the site, as with the rest of sector South. The amount of troops, armor, barbed wire and security procedure prior to entering the grounds is unmatched by anything we have experienced in the numerous other sites. And yet, a quick glance at the surrounding topography suggests that much of this might be overkill: there is a single pathway to the monastery nestled in the treacherous river gorge, and it can be defended from a charging mob (or most any ground attack) in a straightforward way; assets were in place back in 2004 to do just that. What lacked is the political will to use them, and it thus remained unclear if all the present resources would be any more effective should that will continue to be lacking. Still, we finally make it in past the checkpoint onto the monastery grounds, where we are immediately warmly greeted by the three monks currently in residence; the others, including the abbot, happened to be away.
Also visible on the premises are a couple of Serbian workers engaged in noisy works of rebuilding the stone refectory, to follow earlier accomplishments on the dormitory and offices. Our time is limited, and we exchange some basic facts in a quick conversation, taking a few memorable pictures along the way. The brotherhood is visibly pleased at this unannounced visit from afar. We express our concern at their prospects of survival at this vulnerable southernmost outpost; their response rings with a measured defiance and pride as they point to the hugeSerbian flag hoisted centrally on the compound, proudly stating that 'it is here, and will remain here for a very long time'. Our patience is rewarded as a favorable wind flows the flag in full glory, and we take a couple of shots capturing the moment and its witnesses. We further examine the site of the former grave of czar Dusan. Although the relics have mainly been transferred to St. Mark's church in Belgrade decades ago, the site still has considerable value and importance, and the faint engraving on the marble stone legibly remains. The deputy abbot points to the area where the Albanian mob persistently tried to destroy or pry it open during their multi-hour 2004 rampage, yet despite some traces of surface damage, the gravestone miraculously survived. We finally go to the chapel, venerate the icons, and leave our modest contributions to the Glory of God and towards the well-being of the monastery. We bid our farewell to the hospitable brotherhood, and depart through the protective German KFOR gauntlet. On the way back we vaguely identify the location of the hermitage of St. Sava in the steep eastern cliffs; despite the clear desire, we are out of time to try and visit it. Perhaps some other time. We are heading back for Velika Hoca.
Churches of Velika Hoca
We first stop at the site where our main crew was busily working the third and final smaller church in the Metohija to be covered that day. One of the many gems of modest physical size but rich in history spiritual heritage, the monastery of St. John the Baptist is one of the dozen such sites that dot the general vicinity of Velika Hoca, and contribute to its spiritual reputation. Neglected for a long time, the monastery was taken over by an active brotherhood in the recent years. The fact that this happened during the post-1999 occupation speaks to the resilience and determination evident around here.
As, Sasa, Goca, Meda and the others busily move various cameras and equipment in and out of tight spaces and loudly discuss vantage points and other technicalities in the background, Sinisa and I sit in the shade of the old walnut tree with a couple of monks and the young deacon from town, savoring the local pear brandy and culinary specialties. A novice from the brotherhood - still in his mid-20's - is particularly eloquent in describing his path from a confused but searching youth in Prokuplje in the Serbian heartland, to the present state. Together, they all proudly point out their achievements to date, in the few brief years of residence, show how much has been brought to life in and around the area as a result, and discuss with excitement their plans for the months and years ahead. We head back to town on a guarded and subtle, yet upbeat note.
Curious to see the upshot of the amusing morning scene with the oversized German mobile crane that we left in its perplexing midst, we are delighted to find that everything has been settled in the few intervening hours, as if a good fairy took care of it all. The huge steel tanks were in their proper place, as was the cellar's tile roof and stone arched gate, the heavy machinery all gone. Brother Marko proudly took us around on an impromptu tour of the now functionally complete cellar, and enthusiastically discussed once again the ambitious plans that the monastery winery can now embark on and implement.
Late lunch at the town church's dining room - unpretentious, yet hearty and flavorful. We are together with the parish priest, his son deacon who was with us earlier, and we talk about the challenges and facts of their everyday life, their alternating fears and hopes.