”Hands up!” the young east German soldier ordered at the sturdy military bridge leading to the Holy Archangels Monas-tery outside Prizren. “Empty your pockets.” He was looking for explosives or incendiary devices.
Nowadays, Brits are so used to not talking about the war and regarding modern Germans as models of a post-military society that it came as a shock to be barked at by a real German. “Fotografieren verboten!” the sergeant shouted.
As if to emphasise their no-nonsense approach to peacekeeping in this south-western corner of Kosovo, the German Nato-led troops had put up signs proclaiming: “This building site is protected by law. Any act of vandalism and looting will be considered as a criminal offence of the utmost gravity” and “K-For Area – Prohibited area! Danger: Authorised use of firearms”.
I forget what the German is for “locking the stable door after the horse has bolted”, but this Prussian severity was made comic rather than intimidating by the tragic scene next to the Bundeswehr’s (the German armed forces’) formidable armoured cars. The beautiful 14th-century monas-tery was a burnt-out ruin.
Indeed, this had actually been the site of two versions of the monastery: when the older, mid-14th-century one had been largely demolished by the Ottomans, a second one was rebuilt on the site in 1998. Its chapel and cells survived the collapse of Serbian rule, in June 1999, unscathed.
Nearly five years later, widespread violence erupted again in Kosovo. On 17 March 2004, the monks received a mobile phone call from an Albanian (as they judged from his accent) warning that a mob of 500 Albanians was marching up the road from Prizren, three miles away. They had already set alight the city’s churches and scores of Serbian houses that had survived the 1999 war.
German troops had been guarding the monks since 1999 and had built the broad bridge across the river to carry their heavy vehicles and supplies. At the other end of the monastery, a high gate blocked access to the usual route across the river. The German soldiers loaded the monks into an armoured car and took them to safety. But, according to their sergeant, they had “no mandate” to block the bridge or to use force against the arsonists who poured into the monastery grounds. As a result, the mob helped themselves to fuel from the K-For camp supply and set fire to the church and the monks’ cells.
The German soldiers’ mantra about the lack of mandate recalled the sorry days of the EU’s foray into peacekeeping in Croatia and Bosnia more than a decade ago. At that time, it was the Croatian or Bosnian victims of Serbian paramilitaries who went unprotected because no one authorised the tens of thousands of Nato soldiers on the ground to defend them. Now it is the Serbs’ turn to suffer.
The local Albanian paramilitary mafias, by contrast, are benefiting from the situation both in Kosovo and globally. They saw how, by mid-March, the United States and British armies were sinking into the Iraqi quagmire and Kosovo was no longer a priority. Although a few reinforcements were rushed out to calm the quarrelling factions, everyone knew the troops were not coming to stay.
The mafia recognised how desperate Nato is to avoid trouble on the Balkan front, and the rioting in March was its classic way of upping the price for quiet. And it is being paid. After a tailing-off in aid supplies over the past five years, now, each day, a mile-long queue of trucks waits to enter Kosovo from Macedonia. It is like the boom days of 1999, when international aid flowed to the 1.6 million Kosovars.
While Serbian historical monuments lie unrepaired and will probably fade from view due to neglect and vandalism, the landscape of Kosovo has been transformed by shed-loads of bright red German bricks donated by the EU and other aid agencies. Where there were once fields, orchards and vineyards, you now see outlines of countless three- or four-storey houses. Indeed, this is a housing boom on greenfield sites unimagined even by John Prescott; it is transforming Kosovo into a suburban sprawl.
Yet there is something odd about the new houses. It is not that they are large, nor even that they are empty. It is that so many are unfinished and do not seem designed for human habitation. They lack sewage channels and water pipes or points for electricity cables. Many have straw on the floors, even of the upper storeys, which are obviously used as stalls for animals.
Given that many Albanians admit their young people, especially the young men, have gone abroad to western Europe, there are few people in need of these grand houses – but up they go, nevertheless. Sometimes a father has three or four multi-storey shells around his old house solemnly awaiting the return of his sons.
For Albanians, Kosovo has become a cargo cult that actually delivers. But the province today is an architectural and ecological disaster. The once-beautiful landscape is haunted by empty, jerry-built structures with no obvious purpose – a kind of Balkan Easter Island.
In 2,000 years, archaeologists and anthropologists will puzzle over the purpose of these buildings, and ask why people sent tonnes of bricks and mortar every year from northern Europe to this land. Maybe they will even find the Holy Archangels Monastery.
They will surely be confused by carbon dating that will place the monastery’s ruins in precisely the same era as the building boom.
Mark Almond is a lecturer in history at Oriel College, Oxford