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Kosovo: Masons Stonewall Historic Kullas

  • Jolyon Naegele

Two and a half years after Serb forces withdrew from Kosovo, and the UN and NATO-led peacekeepers began the arduous task of postwar reconstruction, many aid agencies are shutting down operations and moving to where the need is more pressing. De-mining operations ended in December, and the province's inhabitants are increasingly shouldering the burden of reconstruction. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports from the Kosovar village of Gllogjan, reconstruction of the province's historic monuments continues to be plagued by delays, lack of funds, and disinterest.

Gllogjan, Kosovo; 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Now Kosovar Albanian stone masons are busy chiseling as they put the final touches on a kulla, a traditional, fortified stone tower once common throughout the Dukagjin Plain of western Kosovo.

Here in the village of Gllogjan, a former Albanian insurgent stronghold, Kosovo's first kulla of the 21st century has been built in a hilltop cemetery surrounded by the graves of guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) killed in fighting against Serb forces in 1998 and 1999.

Kullas traditionally served as homes for extended families. The ground floor was reserved for animals, the middle floor for women and children, and the top floor for men and guests. Loopholes for shooting at unwelcome visitors substituted for windows on all but the highest floor.

Such towers were prevalent across Europe and Asia Minor for centuries, but only in Kosovo, Albania, and northeastern Montenegro were they still being built into the 20th century. They served as protection from blood revenge and vengeance killings, as well as from raids by Turkish, Montenegrin, or Serb forces.

In recent decades, young people -- preferring not to continue a semi-medieval way of life -- moved to cities or built modern homes adjacent to their kullas, leaving many to fall into disrepair.

Serb Interior Ministry forces and paramilitary units destroyed the vast majority of the approximately 500 kullas in Kosovo during fighting two years ago -- an apparent effort to erase one of the most visible signs of Albanian presence in the area over the centuries.

The new kulla in Gllogjan is a replica of a rare four-story kulla that survived the war in a nearby village, Isniq. However, the new kulla will not be a residence but a museum. Instead of wooden floors, its floors are made of concrete. And its massive walls are made of stones from some 30 destroyed kullas from villages all over western Kosovo. As a result, the facade is quite colorful, full of rose-colored stones from the Brovina area and gray and white stones from other districts.

One of the stonemasons chiseling away is Afrim Pacarizi: "The kulla is a symbol of the old Albanian traditions in the Dukagjin Plain."

Meanwhile, down in the village of Gllogjan lie the burned out, abandoned ruins of at least three kullas, overgrown with weeds. There appears to be no effort to save them.

Sali Caca-Drini is deputy municipal chairman in Decan of Kosovo's largest Albanian political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo. He documented Kosovo's kullas in some 20,000 photographs he took before the 1998-99 fighting.

Caca-Drini says post-war reconstruction has actually caused further, permanent destruction to many of Kosovo's war-damaged kullas: "It's a national tragedy, to lose the material, cultural and spiritual values. The kullas that had survived many centuries intact were destroyed in Serbia's and Yugoslavia's genocide against the innocent Albanian population here. It is a terrible fact that since the end of the war, because of the impossibility of rebuilding the kullas, people who needed space to build new homes cleared the land where the kullas had stood. Thus, for the second time, the kullas are facing attack."

Several humanitarian and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) deny accusations that they insisted that kulla ruins be razed to clear fields for replacement housing. And Caca-Drini notes that many kulla owners have ignored requests by local authorities to use traditional materials and methods in reconstructing their kullas. Instead, he says, they have built additions, concrete staircases and installed large windows.

In Pristina, the director of Kosovo's Institute for the Protection of Historic Monuments, architect Behije Dashi, tells RFE/RL that work is underway on several projects to rebuild kullas, though not by her institute. She says no one from the institute has been to Gllogjan to see the new kulla because she says there is no money in the budget. Meanwhile, her staff of architects -- computer illiterate -- work in a thick haze of cigarette smoke, drafting plans by hand for reconstructing kullas, complete with plumbing and built-in kitchens.

The force behind the Gllogjan project is a native son: former rebel leader turned politician Ramush Haradinaj, the chairman of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, the third-largest Albanian party in the province. He concedes the new Gllogjan kulla and another one he is erecting in Jabllanica do not fully respect kulla building traditions. But he says he intends to launch reconstruction projects for several kullas in the villages of Koshare, Smolica, Junik, Ponoshec, Mulliq, and Novokaz that will be faithful restorations.

"It doesn't matter if we don't succeed in rebuilding all of them. save a few of them over a few years will be really helpful to the whole region because those things we need in future to be seen and to show the people the way people lived -- not only in the last 10 years but in past centuries, too."

But Haradinaj says he still needs to organize financial support for the project: "This project is difficult to develop just by ourselves. We are not working in an expensive way, but still there is a need for [financial] support because today to prepare stones you need a lot of people and a lot of time, and sometimes people need to be paid. So it's going to be a project in which we are hoping to have the support of people, that they will understand how important it is to save those values of the past."

Some 7 kilometers northwest of Gllogjan is the market town of Decan, famed for its magnificent 14th-century Visor Decani Serbian Orthodox monastery, which survived the war intact and which is now heavily guarded by Italian peacekeepers.

Decan also is known for its large number of kullas, most of which were damaged by tank fire and then set alight. One of the gutted kullas was a mosque built in the traditional kulla style. The UN says it is 200 years old. The Muslim priest, or hodja, in Decan says it is 120 years old.

An offer of assistance from the Southeast Asian sultanate of Brunei has resulted in a festering dispute between the hodja, Murat Thaci, and UN administrators.

Hodja Thaci says a foundation operating through Brunei's embassy in France one year ago offered $150,000 for a new mosque. After the cultural office of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) tried to intervene to save what's left of the kulla mosque, Brunei declared the sum could be used either to be build a new mosque or reconstruct the old mosque.

Thaci says the money sent by the Brunei foundation is currently being held by the UNMIK, pending consultations: "We would like to rebuild the mosque in the old style, but we insist that we start with new foundations because all experts and analyses confirm that the remaining walls are terribly badly damaged."

Thaci says Decan's Albanians want a bigger mosque because the population has grown significantly in the last 120 years. He says one compromise would be to rebuild the mosque according to its original measurements and preserve it as a museum while building a new mosque on a separate site to serve the current needs of the Islamic community.

However, Thaci quotes UN officials as insisting that the $150,000 donation from Brunei only be used to rebuild the old mosque, using what is left of the old walls and foundation: "Our estimates show that this mosque could be rebuilt at a cost of 250,000 Deutschmarks ($114,000). The UNMIK now has $150,000 for a mosque. If I had that money in my hands, I could build two mosques -- rebuild this mosque and build a new one, as well."

Decan's kulla mosque did not have the status of a protected monument and was just one of what local authorities say were numerous kulla mosques in the area.

Prayers are currently held in an adjoining building -- the Islamic Association -- where the hodja has his office overlooking the gutted kulla mosque. He says large ceremonies and feasts are held in the local high school: "Like in most communities here, the overwhelming majority of people in Decan are Muslims, but most are not practicing at all. During the daily prayers, we have about 20 men participating and at Friday prayers between 80 and 100 come, and even more at Bayram and other feasts."

But the hodja is not only battling the UNMIK's culture office. Other personalities would like to see the mosque restored to its prewar state.

Caca-Drini, whose home and collection of kulla photographs were largely destroyed by Serb forces, favors renovating Decan's existing kulla mosque: "The kulla mosque in Decan is just one of numerous similar kulla mosques in the area. The one in Decan had enough space to serve the people who visited it. I would be most appreciative if this kulla mosque were to be restored to the way it was before its destruction, since this is the only way to preserve the ancient heritage of the Albanians here."

The UN municipal administrator in nearby Gjakova, Martin Dvorak, has been overseeing reconstruction in western Kosovo for two years. Speaking his mind rather than airing UN policy, Dvorak says: "It's annoying that the local clerics frequently prefer immediate profit because they'll have a bigger, prettier mosque, I'd almost say, and be closer to Moscow, than try to protect what is historically interesting and valuable. So, unfortunately, the locals are submitting to this commercialized religion, which is quite sad. I'm not the only one who is bothered by this. Of course, institutional historic landmarks preservationists are trying to fight this."

Architect Dashi expresses frustration that while she is interested in preserving the kulla mosque, no one takes her institute seriously: "As far as the situation in Decani is concerned, we are totally ignored. In Kosovo now, such things are ignored. And if someone does something, it's a private initiative."

The UNMIK's Dvorak says local governments wasted a lot of time after taking office following municipal elections in October 2000, time that could have been used for reconstruction. He says they only launched building projects shortly before the recent 17 November parliamentary elections, when weather conditions were no longer suitable. He says several thousand gutted buildings have been rebuilt, but that 5,000 war-damaged buildings in his district still await renovation.

But some of the biggest problems concern the involvement of Wahhabi Muslim aid organizations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who favor erecting boxy new mosques across the Balkans to restoring decorative Ottoman-era architecture.

The UNMIK's Dvorak says: "Arab volunteer aid organizations have influence here and clearly prefer building new mosques to reconstructing the old ones, many of which are historically valuable. This is a trend which is starting to become very dangerous because quite a lot of historic monuments won't be protected and will probably disappear. This is an internal conflict within various Muslim communities. One side refuses to allow a mosque to be in the vicinity of graves. Sadly, this can go so far that gravestones have been vandalized at the mosque because one religious group objects to their presence."

Last summer, a pile of old gravestones was found smashed under a tarpaulin adjacent to Gjakova's main mosque and a Saudi aid agency office. They're still there.