No matter the weather, time of day or level of danger, Greek soldiers can be found standing guard over one of Kosovo’s most famous Orthodox monasteries.
Members of the 647th Mechanised Infantry Battalion have been protecting Sokolica Monastery since 2002.
One squad, including one officer and 10 non-commissioned officers, is always on duty on monastery grounds watching for possible threats and preparing to take action in case of any emergency. Should a crisis present itself, additional forces are always on standby to quickly respond.
“My main mission here is to keep the monastery in a safe and secure environment,” said Sergeant Tzivis, 647th MIB. “We protect it from the three Albanian villages nearby.”
Mother Abbess Makaria, head nun, said Danish forces were the first Kosovo Force members to guard the monastery in 1999. She said with them, as with the Greek forces now, she looks at the soldiers as protectors rather than occupiers.
“After the arrival of Nato (in Kosovo), 168 churches were destroyed,” said Mother Makaria. “If it wasn’t for Nato, they would have all been destroyed.”
Mother Makaria said the Greek soldiers have the common bond of the Orthodox religion with her and the other sisters of Sokolica/Sokollice. This shared faith has allowed the two groups to live like a family.
“I am happy we have the Greek soldiers here,” said Mother Makaria. “Last year for Holy Week we made services together. On Good Friday we had a special service with two groups of singers, one Greek and one Serbian. I sang with the Greek group, and we sounded better.” She laughs.
Mother Makaria’s agenda is one of peace. She feels her Kosovo-Albanian neighbours would respect the monastery even if the Greek soldiers weren’t present, but she enjoys the protection.
“I’m not expecting something bad in the future, but it isn’t all roses here,” said Mother Makaria. “God will decide what happens with Kosovo, and everyone will have to accept His will.”
Mother Makaria was clear that anyone in need was always welcome at the monastery. She has numerous stories of providing help to Serbian and Kosovo-Albanian people. She also has many stories of miracles occurring when people pray to the Virgin Mary for help.
According to the Kosovo.net, this famous Orthodox monastery was built between the 14th and 15th centuries, probably by a landlord from the nearby town of Zvecan. The area probably earned its status as a monastery because legend has it that a sculpture of the Virgin Mary with Christ was brought there from the Banjska Monastery in order to hide the statue from the Turks.
Mother Makaria offers two additional stories of how the statue was brought to the monastery. It’s easy to trust in Mother Makaria’s historic accounts of the monastery because she is an educated and well-spoken woman. In addition to having a doctorate’s degree in chemistry and a master’s in theology, the 66-year-old nun is fluent in multiple languages.
Regardless of what story is historically accurate, Mother Makaria is sure of the power of prayer to the Virgin Mary through this statue.
“The statue gives children to husbands and wives who are told by doctors that they can’t have children,” said Mother Makaria. “One Muslim woman came here to pray. She was married for 11 years with no children. Her husband was a good man and stayed with her even though he could have left her after five years without children.
“She said the doctor told her she could not have children,” Mother Makaria continued. “She prayed to Mary. She asked Mary for one son, and she received one son shortly after.”
Mother Makaria laughed as she told the story of the woman’s return to the statue to pray many years after she gave birth to her son.
“I asked her why she was praying to the statue again,” said Mother Makaria. “I know she had been given a son so many years ago when she asked. She said that now that her son has grown up and isn’t married, she needed to ask Mary for a bride for him.”
All of the stories of the miracles and good deeds that have occurred at the monastery have been spread through the local villages, said Mother Makaria. This could be why a day will come when some people would try to bring harm to the site in some kind of political riot. Although the Greek soldiers hope that day will never come, they will make sure they are ready for any situation.
“Of course I’m proud to protect this monastery,” said Sergeant Tzivis. “I am Orthodox, and that helps also. I miss my family, but I know this in an important site.”
Sergeant Tzivis is not married, but said he misses his parents and girlfriend very much. This is his third mission in Kosovo and second at the monastery. At the end of this tour, he will have spent two years in Kosovo. Still, he stays focused on his mission and remains proud to serve.
Tech Sgt Jason Smith is with the US Air Force, Kosovo Force.