Live Eyes Watching from the Wall
In a curious fire in 1984, the entire archive burned down, including birth registers. Someone thought that after this the origin would be subject to negotiations. But here, just like in the neighboring villages Pobožje, Banjan, Gornjan, Ljubanci, Čučer, autochthonous Serbs have been living for centuries. And their relics are medieval, endowments of the Nemanjić dynasty and their noblemen. Today, these people are surviving with difficulty, in poverty, exposed to silent assimilation and noisy shortsightedness of the Macedonian state. The circle of misunderstanding is getting increasingly narrow, like a noose. Even Serbia, it seems, cannot help

Text and photographs: Milutin Stančić

On the fifteenth kilometer north from Skopje, on the slopes of the Black Mountain of Skopje, there is the village of Kučevište. Before people, language and blood got spoiled, before the perspectives and minds got blurred, the village, they say, had been called Kućevište. There is a big difference between kuća (house) and kuče (dog). Just like in the surrounding villages, Pobožje, Banjan, Gornjan, Ljubanci, Čučer, autochthonous Serbs have been living for centuries. Numerous relics of old Serbian endowments are a testimony to this.
We arrived in those landscapes, on narrow streets, between cramped courtyards, near mills and wells. We walk, but still, we feel the weight of something heavy and mysterious, certain tantalizing ambiguity. Just like before in Poreč.
– Forgotten temper – our co-traveller said. – Today, you cannot understand this landscape and its inhabitants, after everything they have survived, during the first visit.
Built and painted in 1331, it was founded by the family of late Prefect Radoslav, a nobleman of Serbian kings Stefan Dečanski and Dušan the Mighty. In terms of volume, content and value of its paintings, it is one of the major Serbian aristocratic endowments of that era, says Smiljka Gabelić in her Notes from Kučevište.
They have, the villagers say, the sexton and the host. And the doors are bolted. We somehow manage summon the sexton, through a tiny link. He comes listlessly, at languid pace. HE immediately commands us to put the camera away. In order to photograph, he says, we need the approval of the Ministry of Culture of Macedonia and ”Macedonian Orthodox Church”. And it’s virtually all he can say about this holy place.
– There is some force, there is something. Who knows – he stammered.
Well preserved frescoes shine upon us. From all sides we are watched by saints, martyrs, ascetics. There is also the order of Serbian nobility of the Nemanjić dynasty. Eyes alive, watching. If at least there is someone to sing them a hymn, to feel the scent of incense and the man, the scent of the living Church, if there is at least someone to whisper: ”Dear Lord, Almighty, the only Holy One, who receives a sacrifice of praise from those who call upon Thee with all their heart, receive the prayer of us sinners, and take it to your holy altar, and enable us to give offerings and spiritual sacrifices to you, you for the sins of national ignorance.”
This prayer is read during the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom every Sunday, but somewhere else. It is not used here, and the ”emptiness of time” is gaping all around. On the gate at the altar there are socks and towels, given as offerings without a word. Bristling banknotes on dusty icons, mostly on the left, next to the main icon of the Holy Virgin. Next to the chalice on the altar we see an open bottle of Kratošija wine, presumably standing there for months, possibly years.
Above the western entrance into the church there is a small chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas. It is not visible from the outside. Many stories and legends exist about this church within a church, many memories of the hard times. The last time we were here, the then caretaker of this temple Trajko Karovčević was telling us talking that this hidden chapel was built in 1501, in the hard times under Turkish occupation.


Serious restoration and conservation interventions happened in 1956 and 1957. There were some later additional works done by imposed contractors, allegedly expert. After all this, the church was destroyed in 1984 in a great fire, one of many. In addition to the narthex, the rich archives burned, including the birth registry, very important for the Orthodox population in these areas. There are serious doubts that ”that was just the reason why the fire broke”: numerous documents about the Serbian origin of the people in this area disappeared in it.
– When such documents disappear, then ”everything is negotiable” – said Karovčević. – Ostensibly, everything can be negotiated then, including the origin.
Above Kučevište, along the river, deeper into the mountain, there is a monastery dedicated to St. Archangel Gabriel, from the time of Emperor Uroš. In the nearby village Gornjani there is a monastery dedicated to St. Nikita, the endowment of King Milutin, built in 1307. In the village of Ljubanci a holy shrine dedicated to St. Nicholas was built in the 16th century, on the foundations of the old church. In the villages of Banjani and Čardak, also on the slopes of the Black Mountain of Skopje, there are old monasteries dedicated to St. Elias. Serbian sanctuaries in Serbian environment.
Along the fence of the temple in Kučevište, two sisters in law are sitting, at advanced age. A little further away, a small meeting is held on the bench – four old ladies talking about their endless worries. That is how days go by here, there, near the capital of Macedonia, so close and yet so far away. Houses are old, some living, some not.
People also gather around the fountains. They idle. The street signs are mostly showing names of local prominent teachers and dukes. On the wall behind the bench there is graffiti left from some local elections. It says: Vojče. A recommendation for Vojislav Kirandžić, a local villager, former head of the local municipality. Today, Kučevište ”does not have its municipality”, but is included in Čučer Sandevo.
– There are dilapidated houses, closed and abandoned ones. Honestly, what’s the use of a house if it contains no living descendants, to continue testimony and life next to the sanctuaries, on the paths of ancestors – says Srećko Petrović, a local. This hard-working and humble host offers us rakia and wine. There is always some for guests. His wife Ljiljana, at the stove in front of the house, is preparing a pot of coffee, at the same place where they cook the meals and bake bread. They have four children: Anastasija (9 years old), Petar (8), Svetlana (5) and Kristijan (3).


– Until recently, I worked at an industrial plant in Skopje, so we could somehow survive and I could support my family – Srećko says.
He managed to build the walls of the house, buy a tractor on credit and to provide for his children the basic conditions for life. But in times of transition, his company did not manage to overcome the problems. It went into bankruptcy and all the workers were fired. He got into trouble and had to sell a cow. They ran out of money for further construction of the house, as well as for everyday life. They were helped by humanitarian organization ”Serbs for Serbs”, some shoes and clothes were donated to them through the Cultural-Information Center ”Spona”. Uroš Lučić, Serbian basketball player in MST in Skopje also joined, bringing new sneakers, a ball, school supplies...
We also hav coffee and rakia at the home of Zlatko and Lenka Guškin. They also bake bread, but not in the stove outdoors. They don’t turn on electricity, they say, unless it is really necessary. Zlatko and Lenka have three children: Nikola (17), Aleksandar (15) and Ivana (11). Zlatko is working as a driver with the railway and with his salary he can provide for the basic family needs, namely for food and education of children. But this family is under the weight of severe disease with which Lenka has been struggling for several years.
– You’re not here for the first time, you know us. To tell the truth, I can take everything, I don’t need much, if it only weren’t for this terrible disease. Doctors in Skopje cannot provide better medical care, and that pains me the most – Zlatko tells us.
The family simply cannot find even the minimum money for additional tests, treatment and surgery.
And so day after day. Hardship after hardship. The vicious circle of misunderstanding is getting narrower, like a noose. Silent assimilation. Devastating consequences of bad personnel teaching children Serbian language, Serbian history and culture, even Serbian future. The heavy burden of decades of negative selection. Myopia of the current state and shaky identity that is considered a majority.
Even Serbia does not understand these highlanders, nor does it do form them what they need. There is neither awareness nor wisdom. If it were doing at least a little, just a little, it would mean the world to them. That could live of that until better times come.


Holidays, sanctifications
According to legend, the church in Kučevište was dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin, and today is dedicated to the Ascension of Christ (Ascension Day). Generally, on the Day of St. Athanasius, the residents elect the sexton and the host for the next year.


Unlike the current on, the previous caretaker Trajko Karovčević is an eloquent and affable host, open and kind. The relics were also guarded by Trajko’s ancestors, until his grandfather and father. His estate is next to the sanctuary. He has two sons. One has already built a house further down, toward the city, in Kučevačkaa bara, the other will, he says, stay with his father.


Holy Images
– Despite other major damages, our chapel still has relatively well preserved stunning fresco compositions from the times when the temple was built, the work of the old masters: ”Washing of the Feet”, ”Lamentation of Christ”, ”Mother of God with Christ” – says Trajko Karovčević. – And the iconostasis and choir in the temple, however, date from the early 19th century.


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