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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Serbian Nuns With Guns Put Most of Their Faith in a Higher Power

May 20, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DEVIC, Yugoslavia — In the heart of guerrilla territory, beneath circling NATO bombers, nine Serbian nuns are holding out against the war with little more than their faith--and a few guns--to protect them.

All but two of the sisters are too old to fire a weapon with much certainty, and only a couple of soldiers are posted a mile up the dirt road to help protect them from rebels, so the nuns are uneasy.

"The older ones cannot bear arms," Sister Anastasia, the mother superior, said through a translator Wednesday while noise from a NATO jet rasped high overhead.

"Our weapon is our prayer and our strong will to survive, and to stay where we are while being ready to die," she said. "People do not understand this. Those with weapons are the ones who flee when there is danger. Even if we fought, what could nine women do against thousands of them?"

The 14th century Devic monastery is surrounded by the forests of central Kosovo's Drenica Valley, about 30 miles west of Pristina, the provincial capital.

The Kosovo Liberation Army's all-out war for independence from Yugoslavia began in the Drenica region in February 1998, and no area of Kosovo has suffered more than that surrounding the serene Devic monastery. Yet few outside observers have reached the region since NATO began its air campaign.

Yugoslav security forces tried to crush the separatist rebels by driving Kosovo Albanians from their homes and burning their villages, a tactic that only stirred up more anger and delivered eager recruits to the KLA.

When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization added the air war on top of Kosovo's civil war in an attempt to force peace, the Yugoslav offensive swept through almost every village and city in Kosovo.

The onslaught against the rebels of the KLA also made refugees out of several hundred thousand Kosovo Albanians, many of them from villages under guerrilla influence.

Refugees from the Drenica region have made some of the most horrific allegations of atrocities, such as the claim that Yugoslav forces killed 127 ethnic Albanians in the village of Izbica in March.

Yugoslav security forces insist that they kill only guerrilla fighters, but foreign investigators are gathering evidence of alleged war crimes from refugees who fled Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

Although some ethnic Albanians still manage to live in Drenica, it's a ghostly place where many homes were burned months ago and arsonists destroyed many more in recent weeks.

Drenica is a valley out of the 23rd Psalm, living in the shadow of death, where peace will face its worst enemies when it finally comes. It is difficult--though not impossible--to imagine how Kosovo's Serbs and ethnic Albanians could get along here now.

Exactly how "is a hard question," Sister Anastasia said, and then paused to think how she might answer it. "If there is a possibility for common life, it can be achieved only if things are worked out between us."

Outside mediators haven't helped during Kosovo's long history and have made matters worse many times before because "there is no impartial side," the sister said.

She blames the ethnic Albanians for their own horrors because, in her eyes, they sided with NATO against the Serbs. She is convinced that together they have formed an enemy alliance fighting to break Kosovo away from Serbia.

"I do not believe that NATO is interested in the good of Albanians," Sister Anastasia said. "There are so many good Albanian people who have been victims of this tragedy.

"But they provoked it. They wanted their own state. Their fault is that they allowed themselves to be weapons in the hands of others."

Like most Serbs, Sister Anastasia does not believe charges by the ethnic Albanians and NATO that the police, army and paramilitary forces have committed widespread atrocities in Kosovo.

Yet she acknowledges, if only obliquely, that some have sinned in Kosovo, whether Serbs or Albanians.

"Sometimes in war it's hard to control everyone, especially those who have lost fathers, brothers and sons," Sister Anastasia said.

The monastery was not spared during World War II, when ethnic Albanians allied with Nazi Germany destroyed it, the nun said.

It was rebuilt in 1947, but Sister Anastasia believes that the KLA is determined to destroy it again. Guerrillas fired on the monastery last year in May, June and October, she said, and attacked the nuns' nearby agricultural center in December.

A rocket-propelled grenade blasted a hole in the tile roof, and shrapnel chipped pieces out of the marble crosses in the cemetery.

The civil war prevented the nuns from farming about 1,200 acres of wheat last summer, and with NATO warplanes bombing in the area almost every day, much of the land may be left to the weeds again.

The nuns would have been safer if they had abandoned the monastery long ago, but they see themselves as spiritual defenders of Serbian claims to a cultural heartland that ethnic Albanians claim just as strongly as their own.

"They would like to destroy the monastery and take the fertile land that it possesses," said Father Radivoj Panic, the monastery's spiritual leader, who does not live in the area.

"But most of all, they would like to destroy its history," Sister Anastasia said.

All of Watson's dispatches are at http://www.latimes.com/dispatch.

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