Today was Vidov Dan, St. Vitus Day, one of the most important days on the Serbian Orthodox calendar because of its coincidence with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. It was also on Vidov Dan in 1914 when a Bosnian Serb dissident assassinated Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo setting off the first World War. And it was on Vidov Dan in 1989 that Slobodan Milosevic gave his famous speech at Gazimestan about Kosovo that propelled him to power over Yugoslavia. Finally, it was Vidov Dan in 2001 when later assassinated Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zinzic sent Milosevic to the Hague. Needless to say, this is a potent day in Serbian history and I am incredibly lucky to be here for it.
We began our day at KIM to pick up all the video and photography equipment the team needed for the day. Then we headed over to Gracanica for the first part of the rally. While I am not sure of the exact numbers, I am certain the attendance was at least quadruple that of the evening prior. Because it was a Sunday morning, services for Vidov Dan were combined with the traditional Serbian Orthodox sabbath rituals. As usual, I could not follow what was going on, but it was interesting to hear the chanting of the choir and the solemn voices of the officiating priests. Up front, many of the clergy had exchanged their usual flowing black robes for more elaborate beaded and embroidered white ones and the Bishop of the Gracanica diocese wore what looked like a royal crown. The crowd here was mixed, young and old. It seemed that as many people were there for the national observance as for the religious one.
From the church, we drove to Gazimestan, an imposing stone monument in the middle of a field about 20 minutes outside of Pristina. The road leading up to the monument was closed to all but Serbian traffic given the explosive nature of the day. In a bit of a strange twist, the people controlling access were Kosovo Police, read Albanian. They were more than a bit heady in throwing their weight around… Honestly, if the authorities really wanted to avoid tensions, they should have sent KFOR to be on traffic duty.
Gazimestan’s usually bleak exterior was covered on three sides, two by enormous Serbian flags and one by a huge icon of Prince Lazar, the ruler of Serbia at the time of the Battle of Kosovo, cradling the severed head of the Turkish sultan. (They were both killed during the battle so how one could be holding the other’s head is a bit beyond me.) I can not be sure of the number of people there, but it certainly numbered in the thousands. Although we were arriving as press, and so enjoyed some privileges to park closer to the monument, we still were only able to find parking a 5 minute walk from the center. By the time we finished there, we could look back down the hill on which it sits to see a line of parked cars on both sides of the road streaming back over half a mile.
One of the more concerning things we witnessed upon arrival was a group of Albanian youth playing on the ruins of a destroyed Serbian restaurant just outside the heavily KFOR guarded entrance to Gazimestan. One of the youth boys, he couldn’t have been more than 10, had proudly draped a Kosovo flag around his shoulders and stood defiantly staring at the crowd. One would expect this kind of foolish provocation from a young boy, but one would also expect that adults wishing to keep the peace would do something to shoo this kid away. When one of the journalists in our group approached the KFOR officers about it, they refused to do anything. After numerous pleas, the gathering of a larger crowd of journalists and some angry Serbs, a Kosovo police officer led the kid away from the crowd. In a region as tense as this, all it would have taken was one drunk idiot to start a major confrontation. Fortunately, but with no thanks to the international peacekeeping force, an incident was avoided.
At the monument itself, a service was held presided over by Serbian Orthodox religious officials with some political personalities like the Minister for Kosovo and Metohija Goran Bogdanović offering words of support and solidarity with the crowd. The crowd itself was quite mixed with a noticeable number of ultranationalists but they were vastly outnumbered by normal Serbian civilians there for a day of national celebration. One of the more interesting things I witnessed was that several of the groups were organized by their affiliation with Serbian football (soccer) teams. Among the most vocal were fans of Belgrade’s Red Star team, known popularly as the Red Army. This name is more than a bit ironic, I was told, given that the team and its fans were among the most vocal anti-communists during the 1980s and 1990s.
The event lasted for at least two hours, and I didn’t feel like I could ask my hosts to translate every word of every speech. After awhile I stopped taking pictures and just sat to watch the crowd. Soon after, my friend introduced me to a journalist from the Danas daily newspaper based out of Belgrade. This was one of the three newspapers banned by government decree in 1998 by the Milosevic regime for “spreading fear and defeatism” when the threat of NATO bombing loomed. Its politics today are left-leaning promoting social-democracy and European integration. She asked me about my impressions about the day’s events and we exchanged contact information. Apparently she has been doing work on the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo for the last 10 years, so she will undoubtedly be a very useful contact when I return later this week.
After the rally at Gazimestan, we returned to KIM studios where I tried to catch up on my email at their internet terminal. Instead I fell asleep at the keyboard. Most of the rest of the day, my hosts were working hard putting together segments about the day’s events for national and international media outlets and preparing for our next day’s journey to Dečani Monastery. While they were working, I took some time to wander around the enclave. Most of the housing here is in terrible condition and the roads are poorly maintained. Many of the residents here raise their own chickens that wander the yards freely like cats and grow their own vegetable gardens and fruit trees.
Something important worth mentioning about these enclaves is that aside from the obvious poverty they are largely indistinguishable from the surrounding Albanian villages. One simply bleeds into the other. There are no clear boundaries of the enclaves demarcated by a fence or a wall. In many cases, Albanians have bought up property inside the enclaves and built new homes and businesses. This reality clearly belies the image I had before coming here of carefully internationally and locally guarded and isolated Serbian quasi-fortresses. I also discovered that my Serbian cell phone service does not work here Kosovo, so I am unable to make outgoing calls. Oh well.
Later in the evening we went shopping for dinner food at a large Albanian owned grocery store. The Kosovo government has formally adopted Euros as their currency and, for obvious reasons, Serbian dinars are not accepted anywhere outside of the enclaves. While I am sure my experience would have been different had I not visited the store with Serbs, I could really feel the discomfort and in some cases quiet animosity displayed by the employees towards our presence. While this was unsettling for me, Kosovo Serbs have come to accept this as yet another depressing part of their everyday reality.
Once back to our home base, we ended the evening early with a quick dinner, some Turkish beer, and light conversation. Tomorrow we set out early for Dečani Monastery in the far west of Kosovo. A completely isolated enclave containing another one of the most important religious sites in Serbian Orthodoxy, this should be an interesting trip.
Serbian phrase of the day: živili = to life! (before drinking just about anything)