“Their rituals dictate an isolated way of life,” he concedes. “But, the monastery is a cultural heritage of us all. As a child, I went there many times. I fished in the pond there. I would like people to be free to visit.”
The nuns, however, insist the monastery welcomes locals and other visitors. That said, they acknowledge more can be done to ameliorate relations with their neighbors.
“We should have more contact with them. It would be good,” says Sister Anastasija.
To foster dialogue between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, Mayor Rugova recently established a town council, which meets monthly to discuss shared concerns, such as the security situation at Gorioc. Father Jovica, Istok’s young Serbian Orthodox priest, belongs to the council.
Mayor Rugova expresses restrained enthusiasm. “I think it will be better in ten years,” he says. “They will have to accept reality and become part of the community. What is the other option?”
At 8 a.m. on a frigid Sunday morning, a dozen or so Serbian Orthodox faithful from all over the valley gather in the church at Gorioc Monastery for the Divine Liturgy. Father Jovica, who drove in from town, leads the small congregation.
The power outage the night before has chilled the air inside the nave. During the liturgy, parishioners receive a small reprieve when power is restored and the electric heater reboots. Unfazed, the resident nuns continue singing.
Sunday’s liturgy serves as a break from parishioners’ everyday lives and demonstrates the monastery’s vital importance to the small Serbian Orthodox community in the area.
After the liturgy, parishioners file into the adjacent refectory, where they enjoy coffee and conversation. A few indulge themselves with a shot of rakia, a popular brandy-like beverage.
When conversation turns to the subject of Mayor Rugova, all agree he means well. They say they appreciate his concern for the local Serbian community. They mention he promptly cleared the road to the monastery after a major snowstorm this winter. Many at the table say they have known the mayor all their lives; some even fished with him in the monastery’s pond.
When war erupted, Serbian families largely fled the area. A few — mostly men — stayed or later returned after settling their families in Serbia.
“There are no Serbian schools here for the children to attend and no work for them after they graduate,” says Novica Antic, the volunteer who often helps the sisters run errands.
“I was born here. I love the land,” he says, at a loss for more words when asked why he remains in Istok. The others nod in approval.
Clearly, no one in this group intends to leave. All say they have had mostly positive experiences with their Albanian neighbors. Many speak the language fluently. Still, they admit they struggle to build a sense of community with them.
“Albanians will drink with me, but they won’t give me a job,” says unemployed Branislav Živanovic.
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