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Yugoslavia: Kosovar Albanians Mourn Loss Of Architectural Heritage

During the recent violence in Kosovo, a unique aspect of its heritage was badly damaged. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele visits the Kosovo village of Junik where Serb forces torched more than 200 centuries-old large stone "tower" houses, known as "kulas". He says money and expertise are lacking to save them.

Junik, Kosovo; 30 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Three times in this century ethnic Albanian inhabitants of Junik in western Kosovo have battled Serbs -- in 1912, in 1923-27 and again in 1998 and 1999.

In previous unrest Junik, reputedly Kosovo's largest village with nearly 10,000 inhabitants, suffered damage. But the earlier damage was not as extensive as that just experienced.

Fighting between the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) and Serb forces erupted in Junik on May 29 last year and lasted nearly three months. Many homes were damaged or destroyed. Then, after NATO began nearly 80 days of air strikes against Yugoslavia over Kosovo on March 24, Junik's civilian inhabitants were once again forced to flee.

Four days after the arrival of Italian KFOR troops in Junik on June 13, the village's residents began to return from hiding and exile. What they found was devastation.

Junik's Mayor, Niman Tofaj, says nearly 90 percent of Junik is destroyed and only half the village's pre-war population has returned.

Twenty four of Junik's inhabitants are confirmed dead from the fighting. Some 55 others are still missing. Most of the resident's cattle, sheep and dogs were killed.

The village's few shops and stalls were gutted, and one of its two mosques suffered minor roof damage. But the greatest material loss was to what traditionally made Junik unique: the village's 240 kulas, large stone dwellings, some of them over 500 years old. Serb forces torched the overwhelming majority of kulas, destroying not only housing for thousands of residents but a part of Europe's architectural heritage. When the fighting broke out here last year, nowhere else was such a concentration of kulas still to be found.

While the two and three story stone towers were recently used as homes, in the past they served as wool and flour mills.

The kulas, each measuring on average ten meters on each of their four sides, were capable of housing an extended family of 30 or more. But today in all but a few cases, the kulas' roofs, floors and furnishings are rubble and ash. All that remains standing are the 80 cm thick walls of smooth, river stone.

One of the few Junik kulas to have survived the war unscathed was saved, its owner says, because a Serb policeman occupied it during the NATO air strikes and so Serb paramilitaries did not torch it.

Mayor Tofaj says technical architectural documentation on the kulas, needed to aid reconstruction, is lacking. Moreover, he says saving the kulas does not have priority at a time when large numbers of residents have been made homeless. Tofaj, told RFE/RL:

"We definitely consider these buildings destroyed. A special commission has been established in Junik and is cooperating with international organizations and NGOs. We do not have exact information for example on the precise size of the kula's windows or other elements. But in the future, we can deal with this. All this information about the damage to the kulas is just one part of the damage to the whole community. So we have not taken particular account of the damage to the kulas."

The mayor says he would welcome any assistance from abroad in rescuing the kulas.

Kulas are not unique to Junik. They can be found, albeit not built of river stone but of more jagged fieldstone from a nearby mountain, in villages and towns of western Kosovo from Djakovica to Pec. The fighting in this region of Kosovo was particularly fierce, as it was a center of the UCK's rebellion against Serb rule. As a result, most kulas in other villages in the vicinity experienced the same fate. Junik's kulas have small Romanesque windows on the upper floors as well as special slits, known in Albanian as "frangjin", overlooking the stone entrance gate for firing weapons at hostile visitors. The chimneys were made of flat pieces of tile stacked on top of each other. The family lived on the second floor while up to 100 guests could be received on the third floor. The kulas had gardens surrounded by high stone walls, which ensured privacy and protection. Virtually each garden had a quince tree and a huge mulberry as old as the kula, for shade.

But in recent years with the arrival of electric appliances and hot and cold running water, many Junik residents became frustrated with living as in medieval times in stone towers. Kosovo's population boom and the outflow of labor to jobs abroad created the need as well as the funds to build new villas in the kula's adjoining gardens. A few residents even tore down their kulas to make way for new gardens, or else did not value their kulas and let them fall into disrepair.

Despite the considerable architectural value of the kulas, they were inadequately documented before the fighting broke out. Residents say the last kula to be built in Junik was erected in 1944 and the whole village helped bring the stones from the river and the wood from the forests.

There are no stone masons left in Junik who know how to shape the river stones for the kula's walls, having all died out or emigrated. Similarly, the traditional hand-made curled roof tiles used for kula roofs are no longer made in Kosovo.

The owner of one of Junik's oldest and finest kulas is Hysen Shehu. He says it was built four to five centuries ago replacing an earlier one built by his Catholic forebears, before the arrival of the Turks 600 years ago. Amid the rubble lies a large jerry can he says the Serb paramilitaries used to pour gasoline all over his kula before setting it alight last April 14.

"We were living inside until the war. This is a historic monument. It is very, very old. The room for male guests was a rare example of Albanian architectural heritage."

Shehu says he is looking for someone to help reconstruct his family's kula. He works in Germany but he says he has had to give up his job to care for his family following the murder of his brother by Serb police in April.

Shehu says because of its now destroyed contents, his kula had been a virtual museum of Albanian life in Junik under the Ottomans and before. He says the one thing not destroyed is the family's oral history stretching back centuries.

Halit Hoxha grew up in one of Junik's kulas, but now works in Germany. He says he had come to Junik to visit relatives and friends and to see the destruction. He says "we need help to rebuild the stone walls but especially to build new roofs". Hoxha says a kula without a roof will quickly fall apart. He says "everyone is waiting for help to arrive; but if they wait too long, it will be too late for the kulas."