Kosovo mourns on All Soul's Day

For generations, Serbs have visited the graves of their ancestors on All Soul's Day to mourn, pray and give thanks for the ties that bind.

But the refugees in a Brezovica hostel had a problem last week, as they prepared to make dangerous trips to cemeteries elsewhere in Kosovo. When they requested an armed escort, a KFOR official said the timing just wasn't right. Couldn't they do their rites some other day?

The NATO officers didn't get it. The Orthodox Serbs who practice their faith had to observe All Soul's Day on All Soul's Day, because this precedes Lent. NATO is powerful, but not powerful enough to reschedule Lent, Holy Week and Pascha, which is Easter in the West.

Nevertheless, the terrorists who put about 500 pounds of explosives in a drainage pipe under the road to Gracanica knew the power of centuries of unbroken tradition. They knew thousands of Serbs would risk returning to Kosovo on Feb. 16, to the blood-soaked land called the "Jerusalem of Serbia" and its 1,300 churches, monasteries and holy sites.

"We cannot know what was in the mind of the bomber, but it is likely that this happened on All Soul's Day for a reason," said Father Irinej Dobrijevic, of the Serbian Orthodox office in Washington, D.C. "We do know this. ... Religion is not the true cause of the violence. Religious leaders are actually a moderating influence in Kosovo. Yet it is also clear that religious groups have been the victims of much of the worst violence there."

So someone pushed a remote-control button and shredded a bus full of parents and children, seconds after armored troop vehicles leading the convoy rolled past. Thus, there were another dozen deaths to mourn on All Soul's Day.

Surely this pleased ethnic Albanian extremists, since it demonstrated once again how dangerous it is for Serbs to remain in Kosovo. And the blast certainly provided encouragement to Serbian extremists with ties to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, since they believe all Albanians should be driven out of Kosovo.

The mourners were the religious leaders who remain caught in the middle, those who have long sought a multiethnic Kosovo.

"I have almost lost my voice from shouting to the international community that something must be done to stop the violence against all the people of Kosovo," said Orthodox Bishop Artemije Radosavljevic, speaking through a translator last week to students in George Mason University's Program on Peacemaking Policy.

Anyone truly seeking peace, he said, would recognize the symbolic role of religion in the Balkans and seek negotiations involving Christian and Muslim leaders.

Yet interfaith talks could only be held with the protection of NATO forces. After all, clergy who tried to travel to such meetings would be risking their lives. No one would be in greater danger, stressed Artemije, than moderate Albanian leaders -- Muslims and Christians -- who openly advocate peace, nonviolence and a multiethnic Kosovo.

The bishop of Kosovo knows what he's talking about. Artemije is used to drawing sniper fire -- literally and politically. Radicals in Milosevic's neo-Communist regime once called him a traitor to the Serbian people. When Serbian army units swept through Kosovo, he sought justice for ethnic Albanian refugees. While living in what amounts to a NATO protectorate, Artemije has pleaded for protection of Serbs who are refugees in a land that, theoretically, remains part of Serbia.

Nearly all of the 200,000 Serbs in Kosovo have fled, with a remnant living in guarded ghettos. During the past 20 months, Artemije has seen nearly 100 of his parishes, monasteries, shrines and graveyards damaged or destroyed. Many were ancient and irreplaceable. There have been no arrests or trials after these crimes.

This shepherd needs a military escort just to pay pastoral visits to his flock. Now, the All Soul's Day bombing has demonstrated that armed vehicles are not enough.

During his latest U.S. visit, Artemije was repeatedly asked what he thought NATO forces should do. "I am not a military strategist," he said. "I am a bishop. ... But the voices of religious leaders in Kosovo are not being heard very often, and when they are heard, they are not respected."