Kosovo's nuns take up arms

As the fighting ebbs and flows, former neighbours have been turned into enemies, writes Paul Wood
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The Independent Online
SISTER Anastasija, calm and serene during most of our conversation, became animated on the subject of the weaponry held at the Orthodox convent of Devic in central Kosovo. "God is looking at you," she cautioned, explaining that a TV picture of one of "the nuns with the guns" had been used for anti-Serbian propaganda.

The order of nine nuns have now acquired "six or seven" 9mm automatic pistols - to be worn discreetly under the habit within the convent, or placed close to hand in the fields. "They are just small pistols, not great big rifles," Sister Anastasija said. "We're all women. We go through the forest or to our land and all we have is one small pistol each. There's a war here."

For most of this year the convent had been in territory controlled by the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group fighting for independence from Serbia. During that time, the Serbian nuns at Devic, the oldest of whom is 72, felt under siege. They say their car was shot at during an outing to buy supplies, and they point to a shell hole in the roof of the church, which they blame on the KLA.

Sister Anastasija, dressed from head to toe in black, including black Reeboks poking out from below her habit, came to Devic when she was just 12. She has been here for 30 years, rising at 6am, praying for five hours a day and tending to the beehives on the slopes above the monastery.

The Serbian security forces regained the territory around Devic, and the nearby town of Lausa, in a summer offensive which saw the KLA driven into the hills. To the nuns it was a victory against an old enemy: a plaque on the wall records how most of the original 14th century monastery building was destroyed in 1941 by Albanian nationalist guerrillas.

The turning to the convent is now guarded by a police bunker, and there are more heavily fortified positions at intervals; one is opposite a mosque which now has a Yugoslav flag on its minaret. The road is scarred by armoured vehicle tracks and covered in shell casings. Houses are charred, roofs collapsed and the stench of dead livestock in the fields is overpowering. Ethnic Albanians say the houses were deliberately burned by the security forces; the Serbs say any damage was done in fighting. "This whole thing is a big catastrophe," says one of the Serbian policemen. "We are shooting at people who used to be our neighbours."

Driving away from Devic, we are soon in what ethnic Albanians used to call "free Kosovo" but which is now, as one KLA fighter at a checkpoint admitted, at best neutral territory, controlled by neither side. Over the brow of the hill, near the village of Cirez, we come upon "the grave of the martyrs" - those killed at the start of a huge Serbian security operation in the spring which, more than anything else, prompted the Kosovo Albanians to take up arms.

Sefer Nebihu, 57, has his two sons, Xhemshir and Ilir, buried in the grave of the martyrs, along with his seven months pregnant daughter-in- law, Rukie. Their pictures are on the wall of the room in the house where the men gather to talk and smoke.

"We heard the helicopters firing, so I gathered my family and tried to calm them," says Mr Nebihu. "They broke the windows with their guns. I stood up and said 'There are no KLA here, only my family,' but they shot me. My daughter-in-law came to help. At that moment, three policemen kicked down the door and shot her in the head. Her brains were all around the room. Then they turned to Xhemshir [his son] and killed him in front of all of us."

When it was over, Mr Nebihu instructed his wife to go around the room to try to put his daughter-in-law's head back together so she could be buried. Next door to him, the Sedihu family lost four of their five sons; down the road, 10 members of a single extended family, the Ahmetis, were killed. "I did not know anything about KLA then," Mr Nebihu said, "but we are all KLA now. If the Serbs come here again, we will kill them with knives if we have to."

Mr Nebihu has been looking after 74 refugees, friends and relatives from a neighbouring village who fled the recent Serb offensive. As many as 200,000 people have been displaced by the recent fighting. They do not believe the promises of safety given by the Serbian authorities and are not returning to their homes. Many are living out in the open, drinking dirty water, desperately in need of food aid.

In the hills far back from the main road a KLA officer says he decided to join the movement at the emotionally-charged funeral - attended by tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanians - of the Nebihu, Sedihu and Ahmeti dead. He has lost his home and his family are refugees, but he is determined to continue the armed struggle.

International officials trying to broker a peace accord for Kosovo recognise that although the KLA received a number of devastating setbacks in the recent Serb offensive, its fighters remain disciplined and motivated.

But international efforts to bring the KLA or its representatives into talks have failed. "The KLA can't be described in the singular. That remains the worst problem," one senior Western diplomat said.

The Americans hope that a negotiating team picked by the mainstream ethnic Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova - vilified by many of the KLA's high command as a traitor - will be able to achieve a deal which will persuade people to lay down their weapons, but here everyone is expecting a long war. Mr Nebihu, sitting under the pictures of his dead sons and daughter- in-law, is angry at the West for not stepping in. "Albright and Cook said they would not allow another Bosnia," he said. "They should be ashamed."