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Yugoslavia: After Aiding Albanians, Serb Monastery Seeks To Survive

People all over the world have come to think of Kosovo as a land of burned homes, fleeing refugees and mass graves. RFE/RL correspondent Lawrence Holland files this report from a village where at least a few human beings sought to protect others across the ethnic divide.

Decani, Kosovo, 31 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The village of Decani in Kosovo's far west is among the most heavily devastated in the province. Close to the mountains that mark the border with Montenegro and Albania, it was a stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). That in turn made it a frequent target for Serb military, police and paramilitaries. It is estimated that between half and three-quarters of Decani's buildings have been heavily damaged or destroyed. More chilling, mass graves have been found in the surrounding region.

Today, the Serb forces are gone. The village, while devastated, is filled with ethnic Albanians who can now begin the difficult work of rebuilding.

A short distance from the village is a Serbian Orthodox monastery that seems a world away from the destruction. Its 14th century church sits unscarred amidst a well-tended lawn. The only visible signs of trouble are the Italian troops who keep a protective watch and the worry in the eyes of the monks.

There is a sad irony in the need for protection and the fear of reprisal. The monks of Decani were among the few Serbs in Kosovo who spoke out against Belgrade's campaign of ethnic cleansing. And in June, they intervened to help ethnic Albanians in the village when they feared for their lives.

One of the monks, Father Nektarije, talked with our correspondent just outside the monastery gate. He recounts what happened in mid-June just before the arrival of NATO as Serb forces ransacked the village, ordering Albanians to flee.

"We came to Decani to visit [Albanian families] to see how [things were] with them. They were in a panic. They said, 'We may be killed, all of us.' So we [returned] with bigger [vehicles] and took them in. [We went to Decani several times] and in the monastery we had about 150 Albanians."

Father Nektarije says the families stayed for a few days until the arrival of NATO troops, when they could return safely to what was left of their homes.

He says that now, it is the monks of Decani who fear for their lives. They no longer go alone into the village for fear of attacks by Albanians who may think of the monks as a fair target for retribution.

"Every time we pass Decani with a KFOR escort, we hear yelling and [some people gesture] with their hand that they will slaughter us. I don't know who are these persons. But certainly they are not the persons who were in the monastery the last days of the bombing."

What he says is supported by the comments of at least some Albanians in the village. Our correspondent spoke with a group of men as they sat in a small, crowded bar, sheltering from a heavy rain. Many returned to Decani in recent weeks. None said they believed the monks had helped Albanians. One, a former UCK fighter, said he would kill the monks himself if he had the chance.

But there are Albanians in Decani who speak about how the monks helped them.

The walls of Niman Lokaj's apartment are filled with his paintings - or at least the ones that were not torn by the knives of Serb paramilitaries. He explains the theme of one work that survived. It shows a person standing with hands outstretched above his head and below, a graveyard. He says it speaks to the fact that in life, there is no triumph without adversity.

Niman, his wife Hatmane and their daughter Arianda all say that the monks, and in particular the best known of them, Father Sava, did help the Albanians of Decani. They say the monks brought food and other supplies during the 78 days of NATO air strikes when Albanians were afraid to go out of their homes for fear of attack by Serb forces. As those forces prepared to withdraw before the entry of NATO, things got even worse. Arianda recounts the events of June 12.

"It was Saturday when some paramilitaries started burning the city about midday. Then they stopped the electricity and it started to get dark. We were terribly scared because we didn't know what was going to happen to us. We hoped that they wouldn't come to us but they did. They came at nine o'clock at night and started to burn the whole building."

The family says that night they and many other Albanians slept out of doors and hoped that by morning the paramilitaries would be gone. They weren't. That is when the monks came and took them all to the safe haven of the monastery.

Asked if they think the monks should be allowed to stay, the family is quick to say yes. Niman notes that the leader of the UCK, Hashim Thaci, has said that those Serbs who did nothing wrong should be able to remain in peace. But Hatmane Lokaj acknowledges that some Albanian residents of Decani who lost family members in the months of killing in Kosovo still do not want the monks to stay.

Father Nektarije blames Yugoslav President Slobodan for what has befallen Kosovo. And he says the monks of Decani have said the same to Serb forces.

"We were telling that also to the soldiers who were coming to the monastery, whether they were regular or paramilitaries. They said they had come here to fight for Serbia and we said to them, 'No, you came here to fight for Milosevic. That's not a battle for Serbia. It's against Serbia and for Milosevic.'"

Father Nektarije was asked whether he is worried about the monastery's future.

"As long as KFOR is guarding the monastery, we feel secure in the monastery. But for the future, I don't know. I really don't know. I'm not a prophet. But it will be hard, certainly. But anyway, we will stay. That's for sure."

At the end of a lengthy conversation with our correspondent, Niman Lokaj volunteered why he thinks Father Sava and the monks of Decani chose to help the village's Albanians.

"Father Sava helped us because he is a human being and he acted to help other human beings."

Only time will tell whether the monastery will survive. If it does, it might stand as proof that Kosovar Albanians, despite their incredible suffering, are able to see the monks of Decani simply as fellow human beings.