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Unesco reconstruction plan for Kosovo

Lack of trust between Serbs and Muslims continues to hinder restoration efforts

London. The difficult task of restoring historic buildings damaged during the conflicts in Kosovo took a step forward with Unesco’s announcement in December of a two-year-programme for the reconstruction of 13 important sites.

The seven Orthodox and six Islamic buildings were chosen by a committee of international experts which met in Paris on 8 December. Eight countries have donated $3 million and a further $7 million has been pledged in this first phase of a long term programme to restore the cultural heritage of the tiny Balkan province. It includes some of the finest medieval architecture in south eastern Europe.

The buildings selected by Unesco’s expert committee were chosen from 48 Christian sites, 14 Islamic sites and 13 secular sites, identified by two Unesco missions that visited Kosovo in 2003 and 2004.

Marie-Paule Roudil, who headed the 2004 mission, told The Art Newspaper that Turkish teams have already started working on sites in Prizen such as the 14th-century Virgin Ljeviska Church, which has been repeatedly damaged since the Nato bombing of 1999.

While Unesco’s list displays a diplomatic balance between Orthodox and Islamic sites, it is not one that reflects the population, which is now 90% ethnic Albanian Muslims. Orthodox buildings have suffered most since the Nato invasion of 1999 drove off the Serbian army, particularly in the riots of March 2004. Around 156 Orthodox Christian churches in Kosovo have been destroyed since 1999, 60 of them classified as cultural monuments, and 33 pre-16th century. But repairs continue on Islamic architecture damaged during the Serb occupation of the 1990s, with donations coming from rich Muslim countries around the world.

Although the majority of pre-16th century monuments in Kosovo are Christian, many are located in Metohija, the Muslim western part of the region bordering on Albania. The medieval Orthodox heritage in this area is so rich that in one village, Velika Hoca, four of the 13 churches date from the 14th century.

This situation, where the important heritage of one people is located in the midst of an overwhelmingly hostile population, is an extremely difficult one for those attempting to carry out the restoration of historic buildings. The lack of trust between the two communities has been a major problem in the reconstruction process. The Serb Orthodox Church has been reluctant to allow non-Serbian organisations to participate in reconstruction work on religious properties, mainly because of its refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the current political institutions.

The Reconstruction Implementation Commission is a compromise body formed by Serbian governmental and heritage groups under the leadership of the Council of Europe. In December, the commission completed a programme of repairs and protection to 30 Orthodox religious sites damaged in March 2004, funded primarily by the Provisional Institutions of Self Government that governs Kosovo.

According to the cultural organisation Europa Nostra, the problems in Kosovo are far from being resolved. The pan European Federation of Cultural Heritage NGOs, which has been monitoring the situation there since 1999, issued an appeal to all the stakeholders in the ongoing negotiations over Kosovo’s future, to place cultural heritage at the heart of the process. It expressed concern over the Kosovan government’s delays in adopting and implementing the appropriate policy regarding cultural heritage protection, saying that the threat to Serb Orthodox monuments remained persistent and largely unpunished.

The secretary general of Europa Nostra, Ms Sneska Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic, told The Art Newspaper that one problem lay in the inability of troops from Nato’s international peacekeeping force to provide security for the reconstruction of Orthodox buildings within Albanian enclaves. She said that there was a discrepancy in the instructions issued to different troops, with Italian forces more willing than the Germans to provide protection for these restoration projects. In some cases it is left to the largely Albanian police.

The Serb-run NGO Mnemosyne, the Centre for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Kosovo and Metohija, says there are problems of this kind with restorations on orthodox sites in Metohija, including the Zociste Monastery in Velika Hoca, which is in the middle of a strong Albanian enclave. The Pec Patriarchate is in a similar position, as is the Visoki Decani Monastery which is considered so vulnerable that it and its surroundings have been proclaimed a Special Zoning Area.

Meanwhile, the restoration of Islamic monuments face different problems. While donations from wealthy Muslim countries have been abundant, restorations have been carried out according to austere Wahhabi ideals, with decorative details removed and the remains of old mosques often demolished in favour of brand new buildings. The Decani Mosque, which is on Unesco’s list, was originally to be rebuilt with money from Brunei, until UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) intervened against the wishes of the local population to protect the old building.

Although there are differing views as to the ways and extent that the protection of cultural heritage should be incorporated into the political process, all observers of the situation in Kosovo agree that it is only through education that the local population will learn to respect historic buildings, whether or not they are part of their own heritage.

For immediate restoration:

Prizen: the Cathedral Church of Christ the Saviour, the Church of Bogorica Ljeviska, and the Hammam Mehmet Pasha Kosovska Mitrovica: the Church of St Sava and the Hammam Lipljan: the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Stimlje: the Church of St Archangel Michael Vitina: the Church of St Petka Kilna: the Budisavci Monastery Pec: the Red Mosque Dakovica: the Hadum Mosque Decani: the Decani Mosque Vucitrn: the Hammam of Ali Bey