by Monika Bulaj
KOSOVO: LAND of blackbirds, and the memory of death. Memory, above all. And yet this is the center not only of the most innocent and profound Christian spirituality in the Balkans, but also of the most sublime and little known Muslim mysticism. A mysticism which is ignored especially by those who wave flags of hate, march in uniforms, and live only to kill. A blood-soaked land where a 14th century Serb king, who was blinded by his father and killed by his son, is venerated as Saint Stephen by both Christians and Muslims, though very few people are aware of this fact.
Velika Hoca: the garden of Kosovo. A land which is almost too beautiful, with landscapes out of Breughel, and sleds among the trees weighted with snow. The land of St. Tryphon, patron saint of wine, and wedding celebrations where guests dance to uneven rhythms until they drop from exhaustion. Or of the night of George the Green, when the Balkan witches drag the moon down from the night sky to milk it, and at dawn the mothers wrap their children in the first grasses of Spring and roll them down the hillsides. Velika Hoca means 'Great Father', but it is the motherland of monasteries. Today it is a ghetto for Serb children.
Kosovo is a ravaged land. A place of endless war in the heart of Europe where the innocent and weak continue to pay for atrocities committed on both sides of the conflict. Today, Serbs are forced to live without civil rights, in ghettoized enclaves where they are victim to constant aggression and violence. Many Serbs have been murdered. This enduring hatred bears with it the seeds of future wars.
And the conflict has intensified over the past year. An ISIS training camp has been established near one of the largest American bases in Europe, and graffiti praising ISIS has begun appearing on the walls of local monasteries. For the fanatic, war must also be waged against beauty and memory—especially the visible memory of a beauty that was once cherished by everyone.
Velika Hoca is a Serb enclave in a region tainted by ethnic homicides for the purposes of organ harvesting and trafficking. The gutted bodies of Serbs are dumped in fields. When this happens, it is no longer possible to see just a field of grain. Some bodies have never been found, killing even pity. The most sacred Serbian monasteries are located nearby, among the most renowned vineyards in the Balkans. It is here that the worst atrocities were committed by Serb militias.
How to create hope for the future if not by working with youngsters from two communities—Serb and Albanian—who no longer even share the same language?
This is why I decided to teach children street theater and photography in Velika Hoca and after, to collaborate also with Preko Mora (Beyond the Sea), the first non-profit cooperative bringing together Serbian, Roma, and Albanian women in Kosovo. Preko Mora places its trust in the ancient wisdom and good sense of women. Their willingness to share, live together, communicate, and their ability to commit themselves and take responsibility for something which they feel belongs to them alone. With threads of wool they create tissues and garments, twisting their own lives together, working past the ever-present ethnic divide, creating the first links between the two communities.