Kosovo's "cyber-monk" and his mailing list

Kosovo's "cyber-monk" and his mailing list: By Don North. E-mails from an ancient monastery offer rare independent news from a region under siege.

Published March 26, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

With foreign journalists under expulsion orders and Serbian independent news outlets banned, right now the most independent voice from Kosovo may be a Serbian Orthodox monk blasting out e-mails from a 12th century monastery.

Since visiting the Rev. Sava Jajic at his Visoki Decani Monastery last September, I have been on his mailing list of journalists and diplomats. Every morning the results of Sava's Net-surf for news on the Kosovo conflict turn up on screen. They are often stories banned by the Belgrade government but picked up and released by Sava to a much larger world audience.

Thursday morning, it was an angry Sava who addressed his "dear list members: Despite the official promises by the Western governments that the attacks will be launched against military targets only, several civilian areas have already been hit by cruise missiles," wrote the "cyber-monk," as he's known in Kosovo. He expressed grave concern over the fate of Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries in Kosovo and Serbia: "Cruise missiles hit the village of Gracanica, where one of the most sacred Serbian Orthodox monasteries is situated," he wrote.

Sava said he was constantly receiving news from "the ground." He has contact with the few Internet users throughout Kosovo and other telephone contacts, but it is not clear how phone or cell phone connections have held up since the bombing began. Much of his information comes from a steady flow of Serbian refugees, who he says have flooded the monastery in recent months after being expelled from their homes.

The 33-year-old, black-bearded monk has been known for his scathing attacks on Slobodan Milosevic. Thursday he turned his wrath on NATO: "We make a strong protest against these barbarous attacks which will make the humanitarian catastrophe much worse, in which the civilian population will suffer the most."

Wednesday, hours before the bombing, Sava sent out an e-mail message attributed to the Holy Synod for the Serbian Orthodox Church. It echoed Sava's own words: "The way of non-violence and cooperation is the only God-blessed way which corresponds to human and heavenly moral laws and experiences. We remind the responsible leaders of the international community that the evils in Kosovo cannot be righted by an even greater and more immoral evil: bombing of a small, but honorable European nation."

Despite Sava's criticisms of Milosevic, so far no attempt has been made to silence him -- even as other voices in the region have been targeted. The independent news service B92 started its Internet bulletins in 1996 during student demonstrations in Belgrade when Milosovic pulled the plug on their radio broadcasts; now B92's offices have been shut down again. It continues two news bulletins a day, operating from secret home locations and redistributed through a Netherlands-based Web site.

The other best known Kosovo news source on the Internet, Koha Detore, the Pristina-based Albanian daily newspaper that also maintained a Web site, has been shut down by Serbian police. In a skirmish at the offices Wednesday, a security guard was reported killed. Its editor, Veton Seroi, is in hiding.

Serbian Information Minister Aleksandar Vucic has added the Internet to the draconian Serbian law on information, passed by the legislature in October. Vucic specified that Web publications that commit "verbal or opinion deceit" would be fined $10,000 to $80,000.

This hasn't stopped Sava. Recently an article headlined "What's next, Milosevic?" in the magazine "Evropljannin" (European) was banned. Within hours, Sava picked it up and sent it off to his readers.

Despite this, Milosevic has not dared move against the Serbian Orthodox Church and its widely respected "cyber-monk." As the monks in medieval monasteries once pioneered the use of the printing press, the Monastery in Decani, built 663 years ago, sends out a steady stream of e-mail to promote peace and conciliation in Kosovo. The old church, located near the Albanian border just south of Pec, contains the bones of knights who fought in the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389. Last September I drove through a wasteland of burned homes and looted shops to reach the monastery's tranquil grounds. The old walls have seen a lot of fighting since the 14th century, but none more devastating than in the summer of 1998 -- as Serbian and Albanian military groups fought it out, and both Albanian and Serbian civilians ran for their lives.

At the high point of combat around Decani last May, as his brothers raised the volume of chanting to overcome the sound of automatic weapons fire outside, Sava started bombarding the Net with e-mails to journalists, politicians and diplomats calling for peace between Serbs and Albanians. He has not let up since.

"Slobodan Milosevic is playing a wicked game with the emotions of Serbs in Kosovo," reads one typical commentary. "In 21st century Europe there is no place for ethnically cleansed territories, terror or crimes. The Holy Scripture teaches us that one cannot love God without first loving one's neighbor." Sava predicts that unless a peaceful compromise can be reached soon, the small minority of Serbs in Kosovo will pay the price for Belgrade's behavior.

Sava is a thoroughly modern monk: Rising at around 1 a.m. to take advantage of the best Internet connections, he prays and then surfs. He will mark stories from a wide variety of sources and then fire them off to his list of more than 300 reporters, diplomats and friends.

"It's nice to live in a medieval setting as we monks do, but that does not mean we are prepared to accept a medieval mentality. The Internet enables me to speak from the pulpit of my keyboard," says Sava. "I'm on a war footing -- this is not a normal routine."

By Don North

Don North is an independent TV producer and writer in Washington D.C.


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