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Yugoslavia: As Kosovo Rebuilds, Many Traditional 'Kullas' Still In Ruins

  • Jolyon Naegele

Three years after NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia that resulted in President Slobodan Milosevic's capitulation and the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, much of the war damage in the province has been repaired. But only about 1 percent of the region's approximately 500 historic "kullas," defensive multistory stone towers used to protect large families, are being reconstructed. Meanwhile, Milosevic, on trial for war crimes at The Hague, has sought to justify the destruction of the kullas.

Strellc/Streoc, Kosovo; 30 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The ruins of some 20 medieval-looking, nearly windowless stone towers, or kullas, are testimony to the devastation Serbian forces wrought in the Kosovo village of Strellc (in Albanian, Streoc in Serbian) in 1998-99.

The kullas were built mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries by Albanians seeking to protect their extended families from attack from outsiders or from neighbors seeking blood vengeance. But now many have been reduced to rubble.

The village's name derives from the Serbian word for "shooter" or "archer." Whether it predates the existence of the villages' kullas with their numerous loopholes for shooting attackers is unclear since no one is sure when people first began building the stone towers.

Archeologists disagree on whether kulla construction in Kosovo predated the arrival of the Ottoman Turks 600 years ago or of the Serbs several centuries earlier. Archeologists in Kosovo and Albania, however, offer a variety of views on the kulla -- variously having its origins in the Neolithic era, in ancient Troy, or among the Illyrian tribes some 2,000 years ago. But experts concede none of the 500 kullas in the province when hostilities broke out for years ago were more than 400 years old.

Serbian forces systematically looted and burned many kullas in Kosovo after the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army seized control of large swaths of territory in central and western Kosovo in 1998. Violence erupted anew the following spring, and when NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslavia in March 1999, Serbian forces sent nearly a million Kosovar Albanians fleeing abroad and destroyed almost all the kullas.

Fazliaziz Saramaj, a 62-year-old miller prematurely aged from years of hauling sacks of maize and cornmeal, was born in a centuries-old kulla mill. Saramaj describes the kulla as a unique, huge space in which an extended family of 35 to 40 people lived.

"It was something quite amazing. I was born there. My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather and I all used to live in the kulla. It's something that is irreplaceable."

The kulla was the social center of the extended family. Men and guests ate, drank and sang in a large room, the "oda" on the top floor, which had a fireplace, an ornate wooden ceiling and a wooden or stone porch with decorative oriental windows. Women and children lived on the middle floor where food was prepared in the "fire room." The ground floor was reserved for animal stalls or else in Saramaj's case a corn mill, including a large millstone.

Saramaj says that way of life ended when Serbian forces destroyed his kulla three years ago.

"Serbia did it, burned the kulla when the police came and we fled to Albania, leaving everything behind. When we came back, everything had been burned and destroyed -- almost all the kullas and other houses except one or two which the Serbian forces used at the time for their own purposes. All the stone walls had collapsed."

The miller says he had to build a place quickly to shelter his family, including his son and five grandchildren.

"I didn't know what to do when we returned. I couldn't work because I was afraid [of the ruins collapsing]. We had to remove everything using the money we had. I couldn't just leave it and build somewhere else. I was afraid to rebuild anything with these walls."

Saramaj says even though he would have loved to rebuild the kulla, he was only able to build a small house on the same site. As he puts it, "I have no arable land, I have no salary. I have no one working abroad to help me [financially]."

So the stones that had once been the family's kulla were used to build a new high wall around the property. And where the kulla had stood, Saramaj built a new, much smaller two-story house with a water-run flour mill on the ground floor and family quarters upstairs.

Ruke Ymeraj lived in a compound of 45 family members, living in two adjoining kullas in the nearby village of Izniq. Eighteen war-damaged kullas are still standing, two of them are being reconstructed with international assistance.

Serbian forces completely demolished one of the Ymerajs' kullas and looted and damaged the other. She notes her husband was killed when a Serbian shell exploded in front of the main kulla in 1998. Now she looks after her grandchildren in a new brick house at the rear of the garden.

"We lived there [in the kullas] until the war started. Then the Serbs destroyed it and made it impossible to live there. Maybe they thought they'd find gold or weapons. They just turned it upside down. When we returned we had to build a new house because we didn't have anywhere to live.

But in contrast to the miller Saramaj, Ymeraj is less nostalgic. Living in a kulla, she says, meant living "in another time" without proper floors or modern conveniences like running water.

"Repaired with considerable investment, the kulla could be twice as good as the brick house we now live in because the meter-thick stone walls keep it warm inside, and safe. If we had the money to invest, we could improve the living conditions inside."

Ymeraj says a delegation of local and international aid workers stopped by a few weeks ago to say they would repair the damaged kulla, but she says she has heard nothing since.

Architect Flamur Doli is a leading Kosovar expert on kullas. He notes that international funding is only available to rebuild about one percent of Kosovo's kullas.

"Now, specifically, the 'European Agency for Reconstruction' and 'Heritage without Borders' from Sweden are reconstructing five kullas in Kosovo: one urban kulla in Peja, one in Junik, two in Izniq and one in Decan."

Doli's architectural plans as well as photographs and diagrams form part of an exhibition at the Kosovo National Theater in Pristina on the destruction of the kullas.

Hysen Shehu owns one of the oldest and most beautiful kullas in the village of Junik. He takes great pride in his kulla that was gutted by the Serbs. The name "Kosovo" comes from the Serbian word for blackbird -- "kos" -- and several of the province's ubiquitous blackbirds are nesting at the top of the ruined Shehu kulla, picking away at masonry and knocking off stones. Although experts say Shehu's pink and gray kulla was built in the 18th century, Shehu insists his family legends records the kulla as far older.

"The kullas of Junik were built on the land where the Albanians were born, in this land of Kosovo which has been washed with blood for centuries. This kulla was built 600 hundred years ago by the Albanians, before them by the Dardanian Illyrians, who never surrendered to the Turks and Serbs. They protected these lands of the Albanians with their blood."

Shehu expresses particular frustration with Kosovar Albanian officials who accompany international aid workers and experts and promise everything from a cow for every family member to rebuilding the family kulla. But so far they have yet to deliver on their promises.

Kullas were even the topic of a recent cross-examination in the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the UN's war crimes tribunal in The Hague Tribunal.

Milosevic, acting as his own defense attorney cross-examined Andras Riedlmayer, a U.S. expert on Ottoman architecture at the Harvard University library in Massachusetts. Riedlmayer is the co-author of a survey of the destruction and damage to Kosovo's architectural monuments. There was little that they could agree on other than that the kullas had been destroyed.

Addressing Riedlmayer at the tribunal, Milosevic alleged the "kullas are kind of military fortification."

Riedlmayer rejected this saying, "not in any modern sense, [though] they did serve a defensive purpose in traditional clan disputes and such; against modern weapons, they don't really offer much protection."

Milosevic also alleged that Albanian insurgents had used the kullas to attack Serb forces. "Do you know that in the conflicts, Albanian terrorists used those kullas as firing positions for operations in 1998 and 1999?"

Riedlmayer disputed this too. "I have no information on what happened in those specific places during the conflict. All I can record is what happened to the buildings. In a number of cases, however, we do have the statements of the owners of the kulla, who claim that they fled with their families to nearby mountainsides and watched as Serbian troops burned down their kullas.

Riedlmayer says in almost all cases, there were signs of fire and in some cases there were signs of blast damage to the destroyed kullas.

Milosevic went on to claim some kullas belong to Serbs and that "they're also part of the architectural heritage of the Serbs who lived in Kosovo."

Riedlmayer confirmed that "a number of urban kullas in Peja/Pec had Serb owners," adding that these were the only kullas in Peja/Pec that his team found undamaged.

Meanwhile, across western Kosovo, hundreds of kulla ruins continue to decay and many are gone forever.

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