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Yugoslavia: Kosovo War Claims Another Victim--Historic Albanian Fortresses

The fighting in Kosovo damaged large numbers of historic landmarks in the province. Restoring them to their pre-war condition will be a monumental effort, particularly since Serb authorities took virtually all documentary material with them when they fled the province in June. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele spoke in Pristina recently with landmarks preservation authorities, as well as international aid officials. Pristina, 7 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Some 500 fortress-like stone residences, known as kulas, graced the villages and towns of western Kosovo's Dukagjin Plain until fighting and torchings last year and again earlier this year reduced them to roofless shells.

One of Kosovo's leading experts on kulas is Feyaz Drancolli, who now heads the Institute for the Protection of Historical Monuments in Pristina. He explained to RFE/RL the architectural significance of the centuries-old kulas:

"The kulas are an Albanian architectural style of building characteristic for this region. They date back to the Illyrians of the fourth century before Christ and continued to be built until the late 19th and early 20th century. The kulas are important because they served as family fortresses for virtually every Albanian family on the Plain of Dukagjin."

Drancolli says these two-, three- or even four-story fortresses were necessary due to local anarchy and for "national defense" over the centuries against the Turks and, later, against the Serbs. All kulas have small slits built into the 70- to 80-cm thick stone walls for shooting anyone trying to gain entry into the fortress home.

The kulas were inhabited by extended families of up to 30 and could host as many as 100 guests in the top floor men's salon. One of the oldest kulas to have survive the recent fighting, in Rugova, dates back to the 16th century. But most other kulas suffered extensive damage. Drancolli says:

"This war is different because they (the Serbs) devastated and destroyed our kulas. They knew we had documentation of the kulas here at the institute, so they carted all the documents off to Krusevac in Serbia. So now we have no documents and no kulas."

Drancolli pulled out a letter from his Serbian predecessor, Stojan Kostic, confirming the transfer on orders from the Serbian Ministry of Culture of all documents from the institute in Pristina to a museum in Krusevac, Serbia, on June 9. That was three days before NATO-led forces started moving into Kosovo. Drancolli says there were 40 registered kulas and 30 under protection before the war.

Drancolli concedes there are not enough stonemasons anywhere in the Balkans to repair the war-damaged kulas. He says Kosovars will have to be trained in stone masonry and in manufacturing the curled roof tiles for the kulas.

One of Drancolli's consultants is Xhavit Lokaj, a cultural conservator who spent several days this past summer photographing the damaged and destroyed kulas in Junik, Decan, Peja and surrounding villages in the hope of organizing an exhibition in Pristina to publicize the fate of Kosovo's fortress homes. A request for funding from the local branch of the Sorros foundation has so far gone unanswered.

Lokaj says the Yugoslav regime under President Slobodan Milosevic had no interest in preserving Kosovo's kulas from the ravages of time. Instead, government financial support for monument preservation in Kosovo largely went to building new Serbian Orthodox churches or to restore other listed monuments that Lokaj insists were not of architectural significance, while all but ignoring the province's medieval mosques, hamams (Turkish baths) and kulas.

In Lokaj's words, the kulas are a part of "universal culture," not just Kosovo's. He says help from abroad from preservation experts and architects, as well as financial assistance, would be welcomed, since the task of conserving, documenting and eventually restoring the kulas to their pre-war glory is beyond the capabilities of the handful of experts to be found in Kosovo.

Osman Shahini is the head of the Kosovo interim government's directorate for the protection of historic monuments. Shahini says the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) should take a share of the responsibility for restoring war-damaged monuments in Kosovo.

Shahini asked UNESCO for plastic sheeting and planks to conserve the roofless kulas for the next few winters. But he says UNESCO's response was that there is no money.

The head of UNESCO's office in Pristina, Marc Richmond, says UNESCO is limited in what it can do:

"The main thing that UNESCO has done so far is to send in a mission in early July when cultural heritage specialists and myself came to Kosovo. We went across the country looking at many different sites. We examined damage. We looked at the bad condition of many buildings and historical monuments. We prepared a report which was submitted to UNMIK (UN Mission in Kosovo), to KFOR, and to the International Management Group of the European Union. This report is providing some guidance to which monuments are especially important."

Richmond says his office is trying to prioritize Kosovo's monuments and pass that information along to KFOR, which he says has the job of protecting key monuments and places of historic and cultural interest. He told RFE/RL that he has never heard of kulas but that he will look into the matter.

At present, KFOR protection of historic monuments appears to be limited to protecting Serbian churches from attack by Kosovar Albanian hooligans. No protection is being offered to war-damaged Albanian monuments threatened by the elements. Richmond says:

"The problem, frankly, is that in many of these kinds of situations, cultural heritage issues and the protection of cultural and natural heritage sites in fact are pretty low on the priority of donors and low on the priority of funds that are available. UNESCO in collaboration with UNMIK will do whatever it can to draw attention to these matters."

Richmond says an information campaign is needed to raise public awareness of the need to protect Kosovo's cultural and natural heritage, in his words, "as the heritage of everyone here, no matter what their background or whatever ethnic or religious views they may have."

Shahini says the international community -- with the exception of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) -- has shown no interest in the issue of protecting Kosovo's war-damaged landmarks.

USAID has taken the lead in cleaning up the gutted Old Bazaar in Gjakova and setting down stringent landmarks protection guidelines for rebuilding the bazaar. It is also involved in the reconstruction of Junik, which had 240 kulas and 10,000 inhabitants before the war. USAID representative Christine Mulligan says reconstructing the kulas is not as big a priority as finding basic shelter for Junik's inhabitants before the winter.