Serbian Nun Stands Her Ground Against Albanians
By Daniel Williams
DEVIC MONASTERY, YugoslaviaThere are few places so close to the geographic heart of the war in Kosovo as Sister Anastasia Biljic's convent.
The 500-year-old cloister--actually, until 1947, a Serbian Orthodox compound for monks that everyone still refers to as Devic Monastery--lies wedged among the rugged, wooded hills of Drenica. The Drenica region was the birthplace and once-impregnable stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the rebel Albanian guerrilla force.
For several months leading up to March 1998, the nearby forests were KLA country and the nine nuns at Devic say they lived a life of fear, harassment and uncertainty. But they stayed on rather than flee, tending the cattle and growing vegetables to survive isolation. Everyone in Serbia seems to know the story of the Devic nuns; for Serbs, their perseverance was an inspiration, the harassments they complain of a source of rage.
Now, with the horrifically effective sweep of Serbian police and soldiers into the hills, a kind of peace has returned to the monastery. Only the faint roar of NATO jets overhead and the blast from bombs down in the valley compete with the call of the cuckoo and lowing of the cows.
Perhaps it is simply too early, but turning the other cheek is not yet on the nuns' minds. Taking sides is, and Anastasia Biljic believes the ethnic Albanians are to blame for the scenes of destruction that dominate the vista just two miles up the road. "If it were up to me as a Christian, I would not go to war. But if the other side starts shooting, what are we to do?" she said evenly.
"The KLA was always telling us we had to leave or die. I promised God I would stay here, so I would have chosen death."
Biljic, a doleful-eyed woman in a black habit, is the chief nun here. She arrived in 1968 at the age of 12, answering a yearning for a life that shows "man is on Earth to do more than just eat and drink or, as you see now, fight."
Like many Serbs, she harbors a reservoir of resentment toward ethnic Albanians, who she feels wanted to drive her people from Kosovo. In the months leading up to the outbreak of fighting last year, the ethnic Albanians stopped saying hello, Biljic said. Others occasionally threw rocks at the nuns' Volkswagen as they traveled to the monastical wheat fields near Srbica, the closest sizable town; once, a bullet grazed it. Sometimes thieves stole food or timber from the land. Trips to town became rare. Conflict was in the air.
A circuit priest from Mitrovica was too frightened to come, so the nuns fetched him in Srbica and shamed him into saying Mass at the monastery. "Now we live in freedom, but I'm not sure it's all finished," said Biljic.
The uncertainty makes one fearful of the future, for the saga of Drenica is one of the most violent in all Kosovo. Even more killing, destruction and expulsions would seem unthinkable.
In March of last year, there began a lightning Serb police and army sweep of the hills and villages. In a sign of things to come, the nearby town of Lausa, one of the original centers of civilian support for the KLA, was emptied.
Last October, police and soldiers invaded the hills and more villages, turning ethnic Albanians into refugees in their own country. The drive pushed the guerrillas from the roads--and the monastery.
And then two months ago, before NATO bombing began, there began an assault on civilian areas of Srbica, where ethnic Albanians reported summary executions taking place in the street. After NATO airstrikes started, police and hard-line, pistol-shooting paramilitary groups violently evicted almost all ethnic Albanians from the town of Kosovska Mitrovica. The main Albanian commercial street in the city is virtually burned to the ground.
Charity is another casualty here: Biljic, with an ambivalence common to many Kosovo Serbs, is wary of the return of her ethnic Albanian neighbors. "If they act like human beings, yes they can come. But with a rifle in hand, no, we don't want that," she said.
Did she think everyone who was expelled had a rifle in hand? "No, and they're the ones who can come back."
Devic Monastery stands a few miles southwest of Srbica, or what is left of it. Srbica today is a battered place of potholed streets, largely emptied of ethnic Albanians. Everyone left in the town, Serb and Albanian, is living in a primitive state, without water or electricity.
The arrival of outside visitors prompts suspicious stares. Wary police loosen up a bit when told that the newcomers want to go the monastery; it's the closest thing to a tourist attraction Srbica can boast.
The rolling road to the walled cloister passes through deserted Albanian villages, some of which bear pockmarks from shooting in the Serb anti-guerrilla warfare. Others were simply torched as beacons to signify all residents must leave. At one place, a mosque seems to be missing part of its minaret--it stands out because, despite the wanton destruction in Kosovo, damage to mosques seems to be rare.
Successive mopping-up operations have made it possible for Serbs to go places in Drenica where they dared not wander before--but police warn motorists to be alert for small roving groups of KLA snipers. "You can take nothing for granted," said a husky, sandy-haired policeman on the road. He pulled out a KLA pinup: a magazine photograph of some local Albanian guerrillas brandishing formidable rifles and striking spread-legged, Rambo-type poses.
The officer said two of the guerrillas--he marked them in pen by name, Halid and Fadil--had been among the ethnic Albanians who harassed the nuns at Devic Monastery.
That is in the past. Biljic and her eight companions now tend to their beds of onions and herbs, milk the cows and brew their aromatic plum brandy in relative peace.
Biljic longs for the day that Orthodox pilgrims again flock to the walled monastery. Before last year, sometimes 50 would come on summer days, many more on Sundays and holidays. The current lack of phone and electricity bothers her less than the absence of worshipers.
But today, a half-dozen policemen, their rifles at the ready, arrived for Sunday prayers. Biljic escorted them to a little chapel that contains some ancient frescoes--remnants of yet another source of resentment. Albanian marauders burned down the original monastery in 1941, Biljic said. "Some of the people who did it came back and lived in Srbica. They're not there anymore," she said quietly, while the bell for evening prayer rang out.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company