Prizren: dispatch from a war zone

It is hypocritical to pretend that we are rich in cultural heritage while we have institutions that have no clue how –or no will — to stop the degradation of this heritage.

In the hallway of Prizren’s city hall, a heated debate was taking place. A large number of citizens had come to participate in what the organizers were grotesquely calling ‘a semi-public meeting’. Although it was a public discussion on a law, citizens were told that only those with invitations could attend the meeting, dividing citizens into those with the right to attend a public discussion, and those who did not enjoy this right. Everything had been well thought out and planned beforehand, all the way down to the pathetic speeches of the protagonists and the presence of the bodyguards within the chamber.

It was October 2011. The head of the International Civilian Office at the time, Pieter Feith, and the Minister of Environment and Spatial Planning Dardan Gashi, were attempting their last effort to advertise the bill on the Historic Centre of Prizren as a democratic process. At the time they say that this Law would be the strongest guarantee that the degradation of the old city would be stopped and that the historic area would be developed. The entire public campaign and opposition, all their arguments, were mercilessly stomped on and the law was passed by Kosovo Parliament under great pressure, forcing even those MPs who had refused the bill in the first round to alter their vote.

Prizren is the most famous city in Kosovo for its cultural heritage, for its unique historic zone in the country. Both in architectural and intangible heritage, the city is one of the most renowned examples of multiculturalism in practice. Although it was promoted as an added guarantee to the protection and development of heritage, the Law on Prizren’s Historic Centre was ratified completely against the local community’s will. Furthermore, this law also created an unprecedented institutional mechanism, the Cultural Heritage Council, a public authority within the municipality that counts religious clerics among its members. Moreover, the pressure to pass this law against the opposition of the local community, revealed one of the most harmful paradigms of international assistance in Kosovo: wherever there is a problem, a law or a policy needs to be ratified. This provided ample room for all those consultancies which reported “an achievement,” although laws are only tools for solving a problem and not an end in itself.

Today, in terms of cultural heritage protection, the historic centre of Prizren can be considered a war zone. The entire area is considered protected, but in the last year alone there were 11 reported cases of demolitions, five cases of serious damage, and 15 illegal interventions. In one egregious example, an 18th century house was demolished with no permission and the owner operates an illegal parking lot. There is a court case pending for destroying the property. This year, the speed of the zone’s degradation has accelerated. Enduring criminal activity is being witnessed inside the historic centre, an area of 44 hectares with over 20 legal and institutional mechanisms in place to provide for its protection and development. By far, the historic centre of Prizren is the most degraded area in the entire country. Even the authorities admit that in 90 per cent of cases there are failures to comply with construction permits.

In February 2014 a special Task Force for the Historic Centre of Prizren, comprised of all relevant authorities, was established in an effort to halt illegal activity in the area. However, to date it has held only eight meetings and managed to review only 35 cases, almost all of which are related to very minor deviations such as the design of windows or fences, overlooking difficult cases. Last, but not least, around 30 parking lots operate in the area, most of them illegal. Despite dozens of reported cases, there are no criminal convictions for the destruction of cultural heritage to date.

A recently published report finds that about 3 million euros have been spent within a short period of time on the restoration of 10 cultural heritage monuments in Prizren. Today, almost all of these monuments are closed to the public and they generate no money at all from potential economic activity. Only one even has a management plan. Millions of euros from the Kosovo taxpayers and international donors spent on restoration have produced closed-off monuments, which do not serve the purpose of such investments.


Last year alone, there were 11 cases of reported demolitions in Prizren’s historic zone. Photo: Hajrulla Çeku.

More than anything else, the Historic Centre of Prizren is an issue of rule of law — or the lack of it. The entire area is desperately trapped between two pernicious forces, the business community on one side and incompetent and unwilling state institutions on the other. Paradoxically, the international community’s backing for Kosovo’s efforts to become a UNESCO member were not accompanied by a strong commitment to create an effective system of cultural heritage management. The concern is that if international authorities do not react to the devastation of Prizren’s heritage, it will be perceived as a silent legitimization of the degradation. Neutrality in such a situation would be perceived as choosing the side of the perpetrators. The pressure the international community exercised to adopt the Law on the Historic Centre of Prizren aimed to prevent the continuation of degradation. However despite the law being in force, it is not bringing the desired change and Prizren’s heritage is systematically and rapidly deteriorating.

If Pieter Feith and Dardan Gashi had been more careful at the time, they would understand the central argument of the citizens’ opposition. The argument was that the heritage was well covered by laws and various mechanisms, but Prizren was nevertheless being destroyed because there was no implementation of the existing laws. Consequently, all of the energy and the pressure should be exercised not in drafting and ratifying a new law, but in the consolidation of state mechanisms that would protect heritage. The only difference between 2008 and today is that the city is even more destroyed, while the opposition’s argument still stands.

A couple of days ago we lost another monument in Prizren. It was the fifth case of devastation of a cultural heritage property in Prizren in a month. Even worse, dozens of other old buildings remain in such a bad condition that new cases of demolitions will likely follow soon. Nearly four years after its adoption, the Law on the Historic Centre of Prizren has not helped in reversing negative trends, let alone provide for protection and development for the area.

In this state of chaos and uncertainty regarding the future of the historic centre, one thing is certain: the abundant laws and policies are not helping at all. In the case of Prizren, law enforcement should mean a policy of punishment. Until the first conviction for ‘damaging cultural heritage’ is issued, the destruction will not cease. Secondly, the central authorities responsible for cultural heritage urgently need to assess the conditions and invest in the most endangered buildings of the area through preventive measures (emergency interventions). Third, the area is in need of a vision which would allow for development through an efficient system of management. A concrete management plan can offer concrete tools for protecting the historic centre beyond legal protection. The reformation of the management system of cultural heritage, which goes beyond the local needs in Prizren, implies the permanent protection of properties, the drafting of management plans, giving properties a function, investmenting in restoration and educating heritage professionals. The most important task, and at once the most difficult for us all, is reaching consensus between all parties, businesses included, for a development plan of the historic centre with conservation as an unnegotiable principle.

The rejection of the UNESCO bid last year taught us a good lesson, regardless of how painful the results might have been. UNESCO membership should not be a goal in itself, but the result of building an efficient system for cultural heritage management. It is hypocritical to pretend that we are rich in cultural heritage while we have institutions that have no clue how –or no will — to stop the degradation of this heritage.

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