Lessons From the Field of Blackbirds

Céleste Perrino-Walker September/October 1999 Death came with a frigid dawn and the thump of mortar fire over the sleepy town of Prekez, Serbia. Marie Kodra, 38, fled with her five children as Serbs fired into the houses. Avoiding the streets that were crawling with police, Mrs. Kodra led the children into the hills. Seeing a police patrol and hoping for assistance, she ran up to them waving a white scarf.

"I shouted, 'I am a woman with children!'" she said. "I heard the officer yell: 'Shoot! Kill them!' I pushed my children to the ground and an explosion went off near where we were lying." The family moved through the night until they reached an empty basement, where they hid until dawn. Mrs. Kodra said many families in houses they passed had been too frightened to let them in, fearing police retaliation. "It was not until I got out of the area where there was fighting that I learned that my husband was dead," she said, soon afterward collapsing into the arms of friends.[1]

And so the stories go, chasing each other with the rapidity of the machine gun fire that punctuates the tragic recountings. In the West we strain incredulous eyes across the big pond to Kosovo and get a grasp of what's going on. It would be easy to dismiss the hostilities there as a civil disagreement, but that would be a surface assessment. In order to really understand the issues involved in the Kosovo conflict we must go back 600 years. It was on the Field of Blackbirds that the roots of intolerance began that have spread and today threaten to strangle the life out of the Albanians.

It was a dark and stormy night. Or at least it should have been. The boil of Turkish wrath on the horizon of Kosovo meant certain doom for the Serbian army the next morning. As they looked across Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, their hearts beat with steadfast devotion. Tens of thousands of these brave men fully intended to march joyfully to their death at the first blush of dawn, making the supreme sacrifice for the glory of God and Holy Orthodoxy.

And they did, too. On June 15, 1389, in the Battle of Kosovo, the blood of these "warrior saints" seeped into the ground where it would water the seeds of Serbian patriotism and religious loyalty that would outlast five centuries of Muslim Ottoman domination and Christian Serbian resistance. This harvest has grown so large that today you can't see the forest for the trees.

"According to Serbian nationalist folklore, the Serbian nation martyred itself while protecting Christendom against a rampant Islam. This glorification of defeat has long nurtured Serbian feelings of victimization and anger toward the 'Turks,' a pejorative term that Serbian nationalists use to describe Muslims and ethnic Albanians and Turks in the Balkans. (Ironically, Albanians fought alongside the Serbs against the Ottomans in 1389.)"[2]

Kosovo became, in the space of one terrible slaughter, the Jerusalem of all Serbs. ''Kosovo is the holiest place to an Orthodox Serb, more holy than Jerusalem,'' says Father Miroslav, a priest at Pristina's only Serbian Orthodox church. ''We are ready to die to defend it.''[3]

Which is why it's imperative that we understand what is really going on in Kosovo. We need to look beneath the military strategies and the refugees and the atrocities. We must understand what caused this, for our own sakes as well as for the sake of our children, who will learn from us.

Balkan buzzwords include phrases such as "ethnic war" and "ethnic violence," but in fact ethnic, in this case, is the same as religious. The two cannot be separated. Albanians are Muslims and Serbs are Orthodox Christians. Neither has tolerance for the other. And religious intolerance is the root, stem, and branch of war in the Balkans.

Reports of tragedies in Kosovo flood every media vehicle in daily doses. All the stories, in the end, sound the same as Marie Kodra's. They repulse us and make use shake our fists and wish terminal ill health on Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, who is painted in increasingly gory colors as Hitler incarnate. If wishes were horses, as the old saying goes, Milosevic would have been trampled to death months ago, sentiment being pretty unanimous that he would well deserve it. President Clinton denounced him as a dictator "who has done nothing since the cold war ended but start new wars and pour gasoline on the flames of ethnic and religious division."[4]

And it is for precisely this reason that Kosovo, on the surface, is so deceiving. Forget about Milosevic for a minute. Ultimately he is not essential. The hearts of the thousands of people involved are what matter the most. Identifying it as an ethnic conflict and looking at it as a "civil disagreement" does get us one step closer to understanding the real issues involved here. In Kosovo, ethnic is so closely bound to religious that the two cannot be separated. Additionally, because Serbs are the ones committing atrocities at the moment, it is extremely difficult to see them in any other light. The fact is that both Albanians and Serbians have been victim as well as victimizer. This, of course, does not give either license for what they do, but it does provide us with a perspective that is otherwise all too easy to overlook as emotions run higher and hotter with each new headline.

Today's Serbian "monsters" were heroes in World War II for refusing to join with Hitler in exterminating the Jews. For this some 700,000 of them were murdered by Croats in the most heinous ways possible; some of the tortures being so barbaric they were unprintable, disgusting even to the Nazis. Their most enduring and violent disagreements, though, have been with Muslims, their antagonism anchored in the memory of Kosovo Polje. Over and over their monasteries have been destroyed, their people persecuted, and their religious articles defiled. "The Orthodox have experienced more brutal and lasting persecution than any other Christian body. Under Soviet atheism, for example, Communists closed 98 percent of the Orthodox churches in Russia, as well as 1,000 monasteries and 60 seminaries. Between 1917 and the outbreak of World War II, some 50,000 Orthodox priests were martyred."[5]

Persecution has persisted, in one form or another, by one group or another, for centuries now. It did not suddenly spring up overnight to form the gruesome grist of our media mill and give war correspondents another stamp in their passports. Albanians are not now being driven out of their country and treated with appalling cruelty on the casual whim of Serbs. Like a toothache that pains us only now and then, the world has ignored the growing abscess festering in the Balkans until now, when we can ignore it no longer.

In 1996 an Orthodox nun from America visited Kosovo to tour the monasteries. She did not find amiable relations between Serbs and Albanians. Instead she learned that in 1981, not 600 years ago, but 18 years ago, Muslims set fire to the old konak (mansion) at one monastery, the Patriarchate of Pec, destroying all of the nuns' personal belongings. Only the treasury and the food in storage was saved. An abbess there reported that the greatest problems they faced were in 1957, when the Albanians used every means at their disposal to expel the sisters, even allowing their children to leave school to torment them. The nuns asked for the protection of the police who stationed themselves at the monastery gate. The terror was redirected at the Serbian police, and many of them were killed.

It is a mistake to believe that what is happening in Kosovo started overnight. People are passionate about their religious beliefs. Many are prepared to die for them. When a conflict arises that centers primarily on religious lines, it is very serious indeed. It can become a life-and-death situation almost instantly. It is important to remember that the problems in Kosovo have been ongoing, as this American nun observed.

"Because of the great danger from the Albanians in the 1980's and 1990's, Christians who visited Kosovo had to be accompanied by a military escort. We were some of the first pilgrims to travel somewhat freely in the area. Only a few Serbs from the surrounding villages dare to come to the monastery any longer, for fear of attack and reprisal from the Moslems. While we were there one of the sisters had to chase out an Albanian's pigs which frequently enter the monastery. It seemed to us a symbol of the continual desire to defile God's house."[6]

Not that the Serbs have taken this abuse lying down. But they have been just slightly outnumbered, about 90 to 1 in Kosovo, a point that causes them great concern. It was something journalist Fergal Keane learned firsthand from a taxi driver on a recent visit to Macedonia. "We were passing through an Albanian section of town, and the driver did not like the mosques and minarets and the way the women wore scarves and the way the men always seemed to be plotting something under their breath. He had driven a wealthy Albanian family to the Albanian border the other day and they hadn't spoken a word to him all the way.

"'They thought they were better than me. The truth, which you foreigners won't tell, is that they want to take this place over. Have you seen how big the families are?'" He pointed at a group of children playing soccer in a park. "'They have 10, 15 children so that they can outnumber us. And now that the refugees have come across, they think they will have a Greater Albania soon.'" By the time we reached the Aleksander Palace hotel, the driver had worked himself into a frenzy of disgust for these Albanians who wanted to drive him out of his own country."[7]

And here's where Milosevic comes back in. Until he stripped Kosovo of its status as an autonomous province, outnumbered Serbs were like the 90 pound weakling on a beach full of muscle-bound Albanians, getting sand kicked in their face and being sneered at. But just as Clark Kent made a miraculous transformation in an ordinary phone booth, once Milosevic cracked down with his heavy-handed police force the Serbs became like Superman on really bad drugs.

Milosevic closed schools and the government, forcing Albanians to create a parallel, if substandard, educational, health, and social system that tried hard to ignore Serbian authority. Albanians doctors, teachers, and other professionals who were fired from their jobs or walked off in protest volunteered their time, doing their best to carry on.

Some Kosovo Albanians may well dream of a Greater Albania, a uniting with Albania and Macedonia, having a common language, religion, and culture. But most simply dream of going home again. Of doing once tedious chores. Of not cowering in the basements of houses waiting to be dragged into the streets and slaughtered like cattle. They dream of peace. A peace that can be accomplished only through tolerance of religion and race.

"Wednesday, September 30, Sedlare Valley. Went to Sedlare village and the valley above Kisna Reka with the International Rescue Committee delegation. There are 2,000 to 3,000 people from Kisna Reka living under plastic sheeting stretched over tree branches. The sanitation is abysmal, with open defecation and latrines that run directly into living space and the water supply. Most children are without proper footwear. Nighttime temperatures are near freezing, and snow is expected soon. These people want to return to their villages, but they keep getting shot at when they go back. A Red Cross vehicle hit a mine; one person was killed and three injured. Some of our local staff members knew the victim, so the mood was pretty low this afternoon. I'm amazed by the cohesion and solidarity of the Albanian population. They make a real effort to help one another."[8]

This entry appeared in a diary filed by Robert Turner, a 34-year-old Canadian from Salmon Arm, British Columbia, who worked on the coordination of the International Rescue Committee's emergency program to provide assistance to some of the Albanians left homeless by the fighting in Kosovo and was asked by editors of the New York Times to record his experiences and feelings.

In the Kosovo conflict we are seeing intolerance's particularly ugly face. Can we look at it, own up to it, and take responsibility for it? Can we take action against it and prevent such tragedies from happening where we live? It is up to each one of us to build and support tolerance for other faiths. It is our responsibility. Because religious intolerance is not confined to Yugoslavia, Kosovo, or anywhere else on the planet.

We cannot, in good conscience, ignore the underlying issues in Kosovo, bury our heads in the sand, and hope that it never happens in our neighborhood, town, city, or country. Ignoring similar issues would lead to a breakdown in any society. While there are differences in religions we need to have tolerance and respect for the belief systems of others. We must nurture tolerance and respect in our children also if we hope to avoid tragedies of the same nature in our own society.

"When I was 11 years old I was taught that those who did not share our faith were our enemies," said Professor Alberto de la Hera, director of the Department of Religious Affairs at the Spanish government's Ministry of Justice, at a planning session to finalize arrangements for a special meeting of the International Religious Liberty Association on religious freedom. "Now I know they are our brothers. But this view is not shared by society at large."[9]

You would think, considering its long and gruesome history, that the result of intolerance would be keenly felt by those living in the Balkans. But it hasn't played out that way. Rebecca West, who wrote Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a book on history, politics, and culture in Yugoslavia, points out, "The ruthlessness of the old oppressors was never used by docile church fathers to foster an identification with the weak, but to fuel a yearning for revenge. The ballads, songs and stories of suffering, persecution and heroic resistance, central to the teachings of the church, have contributed to the deep antagonism held by many Serbs to the outside world."[10]

And here we have a vital point. When we degenerate into an attitude of "us against them," all hope of tolerance is lost. We cannot nurture thoughts of vengeance and hope to live in peace. It is this attitude that has prolonged many conflicts. In this case, it is an attitude that daily causes the suffering of thousands of people.

This is one lesson we would all do well to learn by example rather than experience. As we know, intolerance of any kind is not confined to the Balkans. Our country has its own share. It is imperative that we learn that respect for other faiths is essential if we are to be a truly democratic and tolerant society.

Celeste perrino Walker, a much-published freelance journalist and book author, writes from Rutland, Vermont.


[1] Ravaged Village Tells of a Nightmare of Death, By Chris Hedges, The New York Times, March 8, 1998
[2] Kosovo, January 29, 1996, Balkan Institute Background Brief, Number 2. The Balkan Institute, P.O. Box 27974, Washington, DC 20038-7974.
[3] Copyright 1992 Time Inc. J.F.O. MCALLISTER WASHINGTON With reporting by William Mader/London, Lara Marlowe/Pristina and Jay Peterzell/Washington, THE BALKANS: EVER GREATER SERBIA After Bosnia, Belgrade is likely to turn its guns on predominantly Albanian Kosovo, which could ignite a broader war., Time, 09-28-1992, pp 55
[4] NATO Opens Broad Barrage Against Serbs and Clinton Denounces `Brutal Repression', by Francis X. Clines, The New York Times, March 25, 1999
[5] Little-known or fascinating facts about Eastern Orthodoxy by Daniel B. Clendenin. Daniel Clendenin is author of Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective (Baker, 1994). He serves with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Stanford University.
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Article Author: Céleste Perrino-Walker