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Kosovo: Ancient Kullas In Jeopardy Of Being Lost

Kosovar Albanian officials say that the Serbs who were once in charge of protecting Serbian landmarks in Kosovo later participated in the destruction of Albanian historic monuments during fighting in 1998 and 1999. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Pristina.

Pristina, 29 March 2000 (RFE/RL -- Ethnic Albanian officials at the Institute for the Protection of Kosovo's Monuments in Kosovo's capital Pristina say they now have evidence that their former Serbian colleagues took an active role in the destruction of non-Serbian monuments in western Kosovo. They say the destruction took place in 1998 and 1999, and that four of their colleagues who participated in it have since fled to Serbia.

According to institute officials, the damaged monuments included mosques, bazaar stalls and fortified stone towers used for dwellings -- known as "kullas" in Albanian. The institute's secretary, Gazmend Naka -- a lawyer who earlier worked abroad as a Yugoslav diplomat -- told RFE/RL:

"We have documents that show that four former [ethnic Serbian] employees who worked in [what was then called] the Provincial Institute for the Protection of Culture were uniformed [Serbian] officials during the war -- which means that they participated as paramilitaries. They worked with the military or police system, which coordinated and misused the files on monuments stored here in the institute building to destroy cultural and architectural objects."

The evidence Naka offers of his former colleagues' alleged complicity is an official military police document listing the names of four employees -- who were, in the document's words, "mobilized in the [Yugoslav] army and police forces" -- and the dates of their mobilization during the fighting. Two of the employees were assigned to western Kosovo, the scene of much of the worst monument destruction.

Naka insists the destruction in Kosovo was not random. He says it systemically targeted non-Serbian cultural monuments:

"This is a repetition of what happened in Croatia and in Bosnia. Serbia's disease is recidivism. So after committing terrible things across the former Yugoslavia, it happened here. But here in Kosovo, it is evident that the destruction of cultural objects was coordinated between scientific cultural institutions and their employees, and the police and military police organs."

The UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague has indicted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four other Yugoslav and Serbian leaders for, among other things, violating the laws and customs governing warfare. In this category, the tribunal includes damage done to religious institutions and historic monuments. If the court succeeds in bringing the five indicted men to trial, the destruction of Kosovar Albanian landmarks could very well be among the charges. It is not yet clear whether the four Serbian employees of the institute will also be indicted.

A Harvard University librarian, and two architects, an American and an Albanian, conducted a survey last October of cultural destruction in Kosovo in consultation with the Hague tribunal. The survey found that more than 200 mosques, one-third of the total in Kosovo, had been severely damaged or destroyed by the Serbs.

The survey also showed that Kosovo's kullas suffered far more extensive damage. Over 90 percent of nearly 500 fortified tower dwellings were severely damaged or destroyed, including all 30 of those listed before the war by the Serbs themselves as historic monuments.

The origins of kullas as typical Albanian residences predate the arrival of Islam in the Balkans in the late 14th century. The head of the Institute for the Protection of Kosovo's Monuments, Fejaz Drancolli, says that the kullas' origins are Illyrian and thus even predate the Slavic presence in the Balkans, which began in the 6th century.

Drancolli says he possesses documents showing Belgrade authorities ordered the transfer of Kosovo's monastery and museum collections to Serbia over the last 20 years. He says the institute's archives were transferred last June, just before Serbian forces pulled out of Kosovo. He believes these transfers constituted an effort by Serbian authorities to eliminate the most visible proof of the presence over many centuries of Albanians and their Illyrian forebears in Kosovo. The aim was, he says, to strengthen claims to Kosovo as the cradle of the Serbian nation.

The destruction of Kosovo's cultural heritage did not end with the withdrawal of Serbian forces nine months ago. The Serbian Orthodox Church says that, since then, at least 78 churches and other Serb historic monuments in Kosovo have been damaged or destroyed by Albanian arsonists. As a result, most Serbian churches in Kosovo are guarded by international peacekeepers. But Albanian religious buildings are not guarded because they are no longer considered to be in danger.