This Church is an Enclave

Last Serbians from Đakovica

Four old women are the last Serbs in Đakovica. They were staying at the town during Kosovo War and NATO bombing in 1999 despite treatment and brutal ethnic cleansing and were protected by Italian KFOR soldiers. Monks from the nearby monastery Visoki Dečani were bringing them their food. During the March pogroms in 2004 they were rescued by KFOR soldiers and left the town. The church in Đakovica was completely destroyed and the women found refuge at Visoki Dečani.

Until 2011 the parish hall and the church were rebuilt and became a monastery. The last Serbs from Đakovica got nuns. The monastery lies in the middle of the town. In „Serbian Street“. The houses were occupied by Kosovar Albanians. Kosovar Albanian policemen protect the monastery now. Since the women are subjected to reprisals they can’t leave the monastery without escort. In January 2017 the residents of Serbian Street attacked Serbian expellees who wanted to attend a ceremony in the church. The bus they travelled with was pelted with stones. Many Kosovar Albanians dislike the monastery, because it is a remnant of Serbian culture.

"They want to expel us"

Sister Jefimija, one of the nuns, says: "We are harassed and threatened." When the women are out, people often break in the empty monastery. Someone tried to poison the drinking water. This is because the Kosovar Albanian residents are afraid that Serbian expellees could reclaim their houses.

"I came here to serve god"

The monastery is surrounded by houses. From the upper floors you can peep in. Sister Jefimija was born in Serbia and migrated to Germany in the 60s to work as a medical assistant. In Germany she was a "Gastarbeiterin", that means something like guest worker. Her ancestors originate from Kosovo. During a pilgrimage some years ago she found her faith. In 2011, already retired, she came to Kosovo and became an orthodox nun. She has nothing to do with her family in Germany. "This life remains behind us." (She doesn't want to be photographed, because she believes that glory on earth will be discounted in heaven.)

"Stop that! Otherwise your mother will die!"

Dana has nothing to do with life outside of the monastery. She's 90 and comes from a village nearby. She's one of the last Serbs from Đakovica. All her relatives are dead or expelled. Her daughter lives in Serbia and visit her just once a year. Dana isn't able to speak, because she had a stroke a few years ago. She speaks with her eyes and with gestures. Sister Jefimija talks about something that happened during the war: An Albanian dragged Dana to the ground, put a dull knife at her throat and shouted: "You will die!" Another one shouted: "Stop that! Otherwise your own mother will die!" People in this area believe that one's mother dies if you hurt an old woman. Superstition saved her.

Dana suffers from the monotony in the monastery. She likes to mingle with other people. So she joins Muhammad, the Albanian policeman at the gate. He has nothing against it. He likes his job because he's save. For many Kosovar Albanians he is a traitor and they let him know. He likes his job, because he's safe. Many Kosovar Albanian policemen were shot in the streets.

The past has cast a shadow over Mara

Mara chases away the cats from the patio of the parish hall. They are running to the other cats in the garden and sprawl into autumn leaves. Mara is 75 years old. Like Dana she comes from a village near Đakovica. Mara has a book on war crimes committed to Serbian people she hides from herself. The book is a documentation of the Kosovo War and full of memories. It contains countless photos of murdered Serbs. Men, women, children. Mara knows some of them and witnessed some murder. She starts crying and doesn't stop all day long. The past has cast a shadow over her.

A young cat remains stubborn and runs to Mother Atanasija. She is the oldest of the women and abbess of the small monastery. The little cat loves being close to people and follows the nuns everywhere. Mother Atanasija (90) comes from a village near Đakovica and was a female verger at the Church of the Holy Virgin for forty years. Together with Dana, Mara and Jelena, who died in the meantime, she stayed during the Kosovo War. Atanasija is a gifted speaker and respected for her honesty and her empathy.

Now the cat is following Jefimija to the church. Jefimija and Atanasija are going to read and pray there, because every day is clearly structured and determined by routines and rituals. Mara and Dana care for the flowers they planted. In the garden of the monastery there are flowers, herbs, healing plants and vegetables. And an imposing walnut tree. When the nuns came out of the church after about an hour, Atanasija went to Jelenas grave to think of her. Nobody will be ever forgotten here.

Without that subliminal threat it could be a wonderful place. I left the old ladies from Đakovica and Kosovo with many presents in my hand and with mixed feelings. Filled up with warmth of the people, confused by the complexity of relations and concerned about subliminal aggression between Serbian and Albanian people.