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Praying Behind Barbed Wire

Serbian Orthodox nuns live out their calling in Kosovo

“It doesn’t matter much to me. I just want to live here,” says Sister Anastasija, standing outside the Gorioc Monastery, which is located outside Kosovo’s northwestern town of Istok. The 25-year-old Orthodox nun points through the barbed-wire fence enclosing the property to a vista of the snow-covered valley below. “It’s hard,” she says, glancing at the fence. “But beauty is where the suffering is.”

The new recruit entered the monastery in August 2010. She refers to the area as Metohija Valley, its Serbian name, still unaware that locals, most of whom are Albanian Kosovars, consider the term a provocative reminder of past Serbian oppression. They prefer to call it by its Albanian name, the Dukagjin Valley. This seemingly minor discrepancy epitomizes the tightrope the young nun walks in her new life in Kosovo.

With four other women, she is striving to do something not only radical, but almost impossible: to live a life of prayer and peace in a wounded corner of world that has been torn apart by conflict and ethnic strife.

Gorioc Monastery traces its origins to the 14th-century Serbian king, Stephen Uros III of Decani. The eldest son of King Stephen Uros II Milutin, he was the throne’s heir apparent from birth. But after his father remarried, the family feuded over whom should succeed the king. In 1314, the king sent his son to prison in Constantinople, where he was to be blinded.

According to tradition, the pious prince entrusted his fate to God. When he arrived in Constantinople, the guards poked his eyes with a red-hot metal rod and placed him in a cell. That night, St. Nicholas appeared to him in a dream and told him not to fear, for he held the prince’s eyes in his hands.

Five years later, the aging king wished to make amends with his son and summoned him back to Serbia. The night before leaving Constantinople, St. Nicholas appeared again in a dream, this time holding before him the prince’s eyes. When he awoke in the morning, his eyesight was restored miraculously.

Three years later, his father died and Stephen Uros III was crowned king of Serbia. As a gesture of gratitude, he established a church and monastery at Gorioc dedicated to St. Nicholas.

The monastery stands as a testament to Serbia’s cultural and historic presence in this region of Kosovo. A placard hangs over the entrance declaring it a Serbian national monument protected by the Ministry of Culture of Serbia. Though in reality, all the government can do is offer financial assistance; Serbian authority ends dozens of miles away at the border. For all intents and purposes, the area falls within Kosovar jurisdiction.

In the 1990’s, Albanian Kosovars rebelled against repressive Serbian rule. The conflict culminated in the 1999 NATO intervention, which drove out Serbian authorities and paved the way for Kosovar independence. Over the subsequent decade, many ethnic Serbs left their ancestral homes in Kosovo.

Having chosen the cloistered life, the five nuns at Gorioc keep to themselves, following a strict daily routine of prayer and work. All born and raised in Serbia, they speak Serbian. They pray up to three hours at a stretch. With the remainder of the day, they weave wool bags, which are sold to tourists in the gift shop in the church on the monastery’s grounds.

From behind an antique loom, Sister Jelisaveta demonstrates the craft. Weaving one bag, she says, takes up to a day.

Sister Anastasija stands out among her fellow sisters, all of whom are in their 70’s. Originally from Belgrade, 300 miles north, the young nun alone represents the future of Gorioc.

Though happy at the monastery, Sister Anastasija does enjoy getting out once in a while to shop in Istok. Novica Antic, an ethnic Serb who has lived in the valley his entire life, accompanies the nun whenever she comes into town. On the streets, her traditional black habit attracts stares from passersby.

The reception in the shops, however, is warm and genuine.

“Oh yeah, I like her a lot. She’s nice.” says Adelina Kastrati, a clerk in a local shop. “We treat the nuns as equals, and they can do as they want,” she says with a smile. Ms. Kastrati addresses Sister Anastasija in Serbian.

For her part, Sister Anastasija is studying Albanian. Growing up in northern Serbia, she had little exposure to the language and finds it very difficult. Nevertheless, she is determined to learn it and speak with her Albanian neighbors.

Religion and language constitute the main fault lines separating Kosovo’s Albanian and Serbian populations.

Most Albanian Kosovars are Sunni Muslims. Serbs, on the other hand, generally belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

As part of unified Yugoslavia, all Kosovars used to learn Serbo-Croatian in school. But since the collapse of a unified Yugoslavia, bilingualism has been disappearing. Public schools no longer require Serbian as part of their curriculum. And the few remaining Serbian-language schools in the country rarely teach Albanian. A whole generation of Albanian and Serbian Kosovars has come of age unable to communicate in each other’s languages.

“For better or for worse, they don’t touch us and we don’t touch them,” says one Albanian man about relations between the communities.

In such a divided culture, more and more Serbian Orthodox men and women religious in Kosovo are making it a priority to learn Albanian. Their efforts reflect a renewed interest in promoting peace and reconciliation between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

Monks at the nearby historic Serbian Orthodox Decani Monastery, for instance, now speak fluent Albanian.

“It’s just a means of communication,” Father Ezekijel, a monk at Decani, says modestly.

Outsiders, however, are enthusiastic. Recently, a group of Albanian architecture students on a visit to Decani expressed delight when addressed in fluent Albanian.

Nol Binakaj, an Albanian Kosovar architect and a member of the group, recalls being denied entry to the monastery just a few years ago. “Now I am welcomed in my own language,” he says. “This is taking the interethnic dimension to the next level.”

During a power outage on a cold Saturday evening, an eerie darkness shrouds Gorioc Monastery. With dusk fading fast, the bright headlights of an approaching police car appear menacing. The vehicle slows and stops at the monastery’s front gate. The police officer gets out and politely requests to see photo identification. As part of a strict code of security measures, a local police officer must greet visitors and approve their identifications before they can enter the grounds.

The officer has performed the protocol countless times. But, he says, he cannot recall a time he denied a visitor’s access, nor any recent incidents of forced entry or robbery.

For now, at least, the security situation in and around Istok seems to have stabilized. However, one needs only to glance up the hill on which Gorioc nestles to be reminded of the terrible violence that engulfed the country not long ago. Atop squats a NATO bunker, where for years armed soldiers kept watch over the Serbian Orthodox monastery around the clock. The last soldiers finally left a little more than a year ago.

NATO transferred to Kosovar authorities the responsibility of protecting the historic religious institution. Though at first many stakeholders expressed concern, most now agree the transition was a success.

“It was a strange feeling, being welcomed by soldiers armed to the teeth in a place like this,” says Sister Anastasija. When she arrived at the monastery, NATO troops still occupied the compound. “The current arrangement is much better,” she says with a smile. “Anyway, if God can’t protect us, a thousand soldiers won’t.”

Though open hostilities between ethnic Albanians and Serbs have subsided, fears of renewed conflict persist. The regular police presence and strict security protocol at Gorioc hardly help ease tensions. By the same token, international agreements mandate the measures.

On the whole, the nuns are ambivalent about the security situation. “We all lived here together before the war and we could again,” says Sister Isidora, the monastery’s abbess.

Sister Isidora has resided at the monastery since 1996, never once leaving during the war and NATO intervention. She remembers the isolation and sense of uncertainty she and her fellow sisters endured as war raged on around them. While open to relaxing the security around Gorioc, she does not want to act prematurely.

“It’s good that there is someone to oversee it,” she says. “For now it’s going well, but we’ll have to see what happens, God willing.”

In the meantime, she is seeing to it that an additional fence surrounds the monastery and its acres of land. In a matter of months, workers will complete the barrier.

Many locals, however, resent its construction. “It’s their private property, but why would they build a fence? It gives an impression that they are at risk and they are not,” says Istok”s mayor, Haki Rugova.

Though he understands the nuns’ cloistered lifestyle, he would prefer they removed the fence and reached out more to the community.

“Their rituals dictate an isolated way of life,” he concedes. “But, the monastery is a cultural heritage of us all. As a child, I went there many times. I fished in the pond there. I would like people to be free to visit.”

The nuns, however, insist the monastery welcomes locals and other visitors. That said, they acknowledge more can be done to ameliorate relations with their neighbors.

“We should have more contact with them. It would be good,” says Sister Anastasija.

To foster dialogue between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, Mayor Rugova recently established a town council, which meets monthly to discuss shared concerns, such as the security situation at Gorioc. Father Jovica, Istok’s young Serbian Orthodox priest, belongs to the council.

Mayor Rugova expresses restrained enthusiasm. “I think it will be better in ten years,” he says. “They will have to accept reality and become part of the community. What is the other option?”

At 8 a.m. on a frigid Sunday morning, a dozen or so Serbian Orthodox faithful from all over the valley gather in the church at Gorioc Monastery for the Divine Liturgy. Father Jovica, who drove in from town, leads the small congregation.

The power outage the night before has chilled the air inside the nave. During the liturgy, parishioners receive a small reprieve when power is restored and the electric heater reboots. Unfazed, the resident nuns continue singing.

Sunday’s liturgy serves as a break from parishioners’ everyday lives and demonstrates the monastery’s vital importance to the small Serbian Orthodox community in the area.

After the liturgy, parishioners file into the adjacent refectory, where they enjoy coffee and conversation. A few indulge themselves with a shot of rakia, a popular brandy-like beverage.

When conversation turns to the subject of Mayor Rugova, all agree he means well. They say they appreciate his concern for the local Serbian community. They mention he promptly cleared the road to the monastery after a major snowstorm this winter. Many at the table say they have known the mayor all their lives; some even fished with him in the monastery’s pond.

When war erupted, Serbian families largely fled the area. A few — mostly men — stayed or later returned after settling their families in Serbia.

“There are no Serbian schools here for the children to attend and no work for them after they graduate,” says Novica Antic, the volunteer who often helps the sisters run errands.

“I was born here. I love the land,” he says, at a loss for more words when asked why he remains in Istok. The others nod in approval.

Clearly, no one in this group intends to leave. All say they have had mostly positive experiences with their Albanian neighbors. Many speak the language fluently. Still, they admit they struggle to build a sense of community with them.

“Albanians will drink with me, but they won’t give me a job,” says unemployed Branislav Živanovic.

Strolling through the grounds, Sister Anastasija reflects on life at Gorioc. “It is hard sometimes,” she admits. “There are not many of our people around. No police, no government. We are surrounded by barbed wire.” She plays with the monastery’s dog, Chica, tossing up snowballs for her to catch in her mouth. Spanish NATO soldiers guarding the grounds named the dog.

Though Sister Anastasija denies feeling lonely, she does wish another young woman would come to Gorioc. When she first arrived, another young nun lived at the monastery. However, unable to adjust, she left after only a few months.

Sister Anastasija, on the other hand, intends to remain in Gorioc for the long haul. “I’ve made my choice and I’m not leaving,” she says. “We will see what the future brings.”

Based in Serbia, Joost van Egmond reports on events in southeast Europe.

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