Apart from expressions of admiration for the beauty we were almost constantly seeing, the most common conversation topic within my group touring Serbian heritage sites in Kosovo and Metohija was hushed and almost embarrassed question: „Why did you decide to come here?“. It was closely followed by an admission, that seemed to unite all of us : “My friends and family thought that I was crazy for doing this“.
We were conspiratorially exchanging these thoughts surrounded by some of the most remarkable remnants of Serbian medieval culture, watched over by countless, dazzling faces of saints, kings and angels above us and protected by marble chimeras protruding from ancient church walls.
Given we were all Serbs, visiting sites of great importance to Serbian history and culture, the situation, in normal circumstances, would be absurd – as if a group of English history enthusiasts were wondering about the wisdom of visiting Canterbury, or French Catholics thinking it crazy to visit Reims.
However, in normal circumstances, the marvellous places we visited would not have been placed under 24/7 police or military watch, nor would they have all been regularly targeted for destruction in the prior decades). For us to be in “normal circumstances” the past century of the bloody Serbo-Albanian conflicts over Kosovo would need to be out of the picture, but alas, in 2019, in Kosovo, it was the “normal circumstances” that were still out of the picture.
That is why I initially hid my decision to go on this tour of Kosovo from my parents, as I knew it would upset them and I wanted to avoid needless discussions.
“What, are you an ultra-nationalist now?”, my dad and a few of my friends joked when I finally decided to tell them about my plan. That was an expected response, given that non-nationalist parts of Serbian public with little personal connection to Kosovo issue, prefer to ignore its existence and effectively leave the whole problem open to mostly garish, but sometimes scary ultra-nationalist co-option.
The night before I left for Kosovo, my mother burst into tears when I joked that I picked out a photo to be used if something happens to me, just in case. I, of course, would not have made that dumb joke if I have not also paranoidly mused about the potential dangers in the days prior to the trip, despite knowing from a lot of my friends that the situation is generally safe (albeit with occasional incidents of busses with Serb returnees or visitors being attacked). Still, the trauma of everything that happened in Kosovo is strong even in Belgrade, several hundreds of kilometres away, feeding unwarrantedly dramatic perceptions. Of course, I can only imagine what is felt by anybody – Albanian, Serbian and everybody else – who actually lived through the horrors there.
So why did I have the urge to go to Kosovo?
Having been to Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu, I thought that fearing to visit some of my nation’s greatest accomplishments which are several hours’ drive away was just dumb. It would be weird to go about my life in Belgrade, walking through Prizrenska and Dečanska streets, and going to my parish church – an enlarged replica of Gračanica monastery – while avoiding to see the originals that are so etched in our collective culture and memory. It was not the state of the world I wanted to accept, nor was the state of mind I wanted to have.
On top of that, it also felt strange to constantly hear (and opine) about a very near, and undeniably very important place and its people, without having seen first-hand what things are like down there.
In sum, I felt that avoiding Kosovo, as traumatic as its history, present and potential futures might be, would be succumbing to denial, at best, and overblown, paralysing fear, at worst.
What awaited in Kosovo for those very short three days I spent there, was wonderful, emotional, eye-opening and ultimately indescribable. I will avoid the cliché of now going about to describe it, as I am afraid that anything I would say would end up as a cliché. Given how rich (or complicated) Kosovo is, especially for Albanians and Serbs, any quick punchy story after a three-day visit would not do it justice, but I would surely advise everyone to visit Kosovo and experience it for themselves.
The feeling I was left Kosovo with, was far from the initial worry. It was hope, inspired by the unlikely, continued existence of these marvellous monuments, which were even more impressive than I ever imagined them being. They are, as strong a testament as any that beauty and faith, mixed with a smidgeon of divine, can weather even through the worst of times, no matter how long they last.
Banjska Monastery (13th century)
Gračanica Monastery (14th century, UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Monastery of the Holy Archangels (14th Century)
Our Lady of Ljeviš (Bogorodica Ljeviška) (14th century, UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Prizren Serbian Orthodox Seminary (19th Cenutry)
Visoki Dečani Monastery (14th Century, UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Patriarchate of Peć (Pećka Patrijaršija) Monastery (14th Century, UNESCO World Heritage Site)