We walked up the valley from Decan, heading for a cleft in the mountains. After a while, we came to a military checkpoint - sandbags, concrete-roadblocks, a Humvee, an armed guard. He waved us on, but ten minutes later we came to another checkpoint. Here, they took our passports and gave us a visitor's tag. We were there to see Decani Monastery, one of the most beautiful and heavily guarded sites in Kosovo.
To reduce any conflict to a battle between religions is reductionist and silly. In Kosovo, it's just as silly. The conflict here isn't between Islam and Christianity, or between the Orthodox church and the Sunni faith. But, of course, it can certainly feel that way. Decani is one of the few important christian sites in Kosovo that Albanian muslims are even allowed to visit.
Kosovo is over ninety percent Muslim now, after most of the Serbian residents fled in the wake of the 1999 conflict. In the beautiful city of Prizren, there are 26 mosques and the call to prayer echoes across the river valley in half a dozen voices. The central Sinan Pasha Mosque is a fixture of the skyline, sitting serenely beside the banks of the Bistrica.
But still, there are scores of destroyed churches here, as well as burnt-down Islamic schools and libraries. Why, in a war between such unreligious countries, did these religious things get destroyed? Serb Kosovars will tell you that it's because of Islamic extremism, Muslims trying to wipe out christianity in Europe. Albanian Kosovars see it differently, as washing away what was wrongly forced on them.
The 1999 conflict wasn't fought on religious grounds - it just happened that nearly all of the combatants on one side were Muslim and almost all those on the other were Orthodox Christian. Ethnic Serbs here were fighting to retain what they considered their historic homeland. Ethnic Albanians were fighting to hold onto their homeland too, the place they had lived for six hundred years. Neither one wanted to leave a trace of the other.
Brother Damascan, an Orthodox monk at Decani monastery, pointed out the image of Christ holding a sword. "The only painting of Christ with a sword in the world," he said. It was fitting, in this walled off, UN protected place - a tiny enclave in a recent warzone.
Visoki Dečani, as the Serbs call it, is a marvel. There are over a thousand portraits in fresco, all completed between 1335 and 1350, just before the area was taken by the Ottomans. Every inch is painted, the images are as fresh and vibrant as one can imagine. A lot of the icons are done in "Byzantium blue" dye, which was literally more valuable, by weight, than gold. The artwork is extremely well done, painted and carved by masters. Decani is famous as one of the best preserved examples of Byzantine fresco, and there was a lot of worry that it wouldn't survive the conflict.
In the 1990's, the Serbian government encouraged ethnic Serbs to settle in Kosovo, and created a system of marginalizing Kosovar Albanians and muslim culture. For example, Serbia listed "over forty churches built between the 1930s and the 1990s" among 210 Serbian Orthodox churches protected as historical monuments. On the other hand, of 600 mosques in the country, only 15 were given the same protection. When fighting commenced, the Serbs targeted buildings that were seen as "Albanian," including 207 mosques (ten were destroyed in tiny Rahovec alone), Albanian language libraries, Muslim schools and over 500 kullas. These cultural buildings weren't incidentally harmed - the Serbs targeted them specifically, even when no other buildings around were damaged. Why libraries? Today, there are almost no Albanian-language books left in public institutions in Kosovo. No Serbian-language libraries were bombed. When Albanian refugees returned after the conflict, Kosovo's Serbian communities had seen very little damage. That changed quickly.
In essence, the conflict and its aftermath sought to wipe away traces of the other people - Serbs wanted to return Kosovo to its 14th century, slavic self, while Albanians wanted to clear away the legacy of an unjust, more recent rule. In the way, becoming symbols not of religion but of culture, were hundreds of mosques and churches and monasteries. It's a wonder any of them survived at all.
In Kosovo, we hear the call to prayer several times a day, projected out over the rooftops. It competes with the music at cafes and with church bells, where they ring. It's become a very familiar sound to us, as it has before in Azerbaijan, Turkey, North Cyprus and parts of Albania. We took a few videos of it, so that you can hear what it sounds like to be in Kosovo.