Battle of Kosovo Speech

 

On June 28th this year, on the six hundred and fourteenth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, Father Dragan Saračević, the priest who married Lazar and me, asked Lazar to give a speech at the yearly memorial service about the importance of this particular battle to the Serb national identity. Below is Lazar’s speech. When he first showed it to me, I loved it so much, I read it three times. It’s so full of emotion, compassion and understanding, it reminds me each time I read it of what an amazing man my partner is.

Before the speech, I’ve added some notes explaining the Serbian words/terms he uses as well as a brief summary of the Kosovo myth.

Notes:

Vidovdan = St Vitus’s Day, 28th June

Knez = Prince

“my fellow kraisnici and I remembered Kosovo in August 1995, as we were leaving Krajina” — Krajina is the Serb-majority region of Croatia where Lazar lived, he and around 200 000 other residents fled in August 1995 during the Croatian Army’s Operation Storm.

Guslar = the traditional reciter of medieval epic poetry, a bard who plays the gusla, a one-stringed fiddle.

Kosovo Field = the place where knez Lazar’s army battled the Turks under Sultan Murat on Vidovdan 1389, and lost.

The Kosovo myth holds that on the eve of the battle, God spoke to knez Lazar (my husband’s namesake) and gave him a choice: the Serbs could have a heavenly kingdom or an earthly one. Lazar chose the heavenly kingdom and the Turks subsequently slaughtered the Serbs on Kosovo Field, ushering in 500-plus years of Serbian oppression under the Ottomans.

The main players in the myth, who Lazar (my Lazar) mentions in his speech, include Miloš Obelić, a heroic knight who purposely allowed the Turks to capture him, knowing he would be taken before Sultan Murat. When he was presented to the Sultan, Miloš stabbed Murat with a concealed knife. The Sultan died from his wounds a few hours later and his son Bayezid then took over the Turkish command. Miloš was beheaded.

Lazar was also captured and beheaded, soon after Miloš’s death.

Vuk Branković was the great traitor. Another Serb noble, he fled the field with his army early on in the battle.

The nine Jugović brothers were Lazar’s brothers-in-law, brothers to his wife Milica. All nine died in the battle, leaving Milica without brothers or husband. The Kosovo maiden is a nameless young woman who, just prior to the battle, was betrothed to the handsomest young captain in knez Lazar’s army. Afterwards, she went out into the field, where she found her betrothed dying. There is a famous 19th century painting of her giving him water as he lies mortally wounded in her arms.

Lazar’s Speech

Some believe that in Vidovdan we have preserved the name of the old pre-Christian god, Svetovid, whom the ancient Serbs considered to be the god of war and the god of fertility and abundance. War, fertility and abundance usually don’t go together but in our ancestors’ consciousness they had one and the same source. Today too in our national consciousness Vidovdan symbolizes opposites: both victory and defeat, rise and fall, the golden age and the dark age. The military defeat — today 624 years old — we consider also to be our greatest victory and we celebrate it as such. But in celebrating it, we are also mourning because five centuries of darkness for our people started on that Vidovdan. Mourning it, we are also celebrating because Vidovdan reminds us that all slavery has its end and every Murat his own Lazar. We are celebrating and mourning because we start and finish wars on Vidovdan, mark the beginnings and endings of our suffering. We are celebrating and mourning because this is the day of Serbian unity and of Serbian discord, the day of that which is best in our people and of that which is worst.

I am trying to say that although we all know why we are here today, we find this very hard to describe and explain, both to ourselves and to others. While I was preparing this speech, I was initially unable to find words to do so, so I started to evoke concepts which are even harder to describe and explain: a ‘Serbian soul,’ for example, or a ‘Serbian national being.’ As I was writing these down, it occurred to me that the need to evoke such concepts is perhaps just a sign that we lack clarity and the ability to truly understand and say that which we already know in our hearts to be true. I decided then to take a different path and return to the source of this question and ask, ‘What is Kosovo to us and why?’

The first part of this question is easy to answer. We all know what Kosovo means to us, and on days like Vidovdan we wish only to be reminded of that meaning while we are together; when it makes most sense to remember that source of our togetherness, or of our nation as we understand it today. We all know that no event in our history is remembered as vividly as Kosovo because we have so vividly remembered it. We all know that knez Lazar’s death is understood in our people as this man’s conscious sacrifice for his faith and the Serbian national good because we understand it as such. We all know that countless generations of our people were brought up with the example of Kosovo’s heroes, because we too were urged to emulate them. We also know that our people have lived with, and were comforted by, these examples in the darkest of times because we too have lived through such times and we too were comforted. We all know this because we are who we are.

But why this is so is somewhat harder to answer. The first answer I arrived at was that Kosovo is able to explain and to serve as a source of inspiration to different deeds done by different people for different reasons. When Gavrilo Princip remembered Kosovo on Vidovdan 1914, he remembered the example of Miloš Obilić. When the Serbian Church remembers Kosovo, it remembers knez Lazar; the believer and the saint who chose the kingdom of God over an earthly one. When a Serbian soldier remembers Kosovo, he remembers the nine Jugović brothers at the city gates, one by one refusing their sister’s pleading for at least one of them to stay and survive that which was coming. When Serbian women remember Kosovo, they remember Milica on the city gates pleading in vain with her brothers, Milica a day later without brothers or husband and the Kosovo maiden without her groom-to-be. When my fellow kraisnici and I remembered Kosovo in August 1995, as we were leaving Krajina, we tried not to remember Vuk Brankovič but remembered him nevertheless.

All of us here have our own Kosovo, everybody’s different and everybody’s true. But that wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I knew something was left unsaid, that one meaning of Kosovo which I am convinced is the same for all of us. And again, as with Vidovdan, I was unable to find the words to say it. Then, I asked myself if this lack of ability to verbalise this meaning is one of the reasons why through centuries we have seldom spoken or written about Kosovo, but rather remembered and sang. For most of our history, we have expressed our spirituality through poetry, which is a habit we still have and do not wish to lose. For this reason you would today rather listen to a guslar than me. You would rather listen to him because you know that I can say nothing about Kosovo that has not been said already in ancient song, and done so in the very words I cannot find.

To answer what songs tell us that speeches cannot, we need to return to poetry which, it seems, we all feel the same. In my case, I was led in search of these words not to epic poetry but to the poetry of Vasko Popa. In one of his poems, Vasko described Kosovo Field as “a field like no other, sky above it, sky under it.” I am not sure what Vasko meant by these words but it’s hard to deny there is something true in them. Thinking about this, I remembered another one of Vasko’s poems in which the word Kosovo is not mentioned but in which we can easily recognise it. The poem is called ‘The House’ and I think it is worthy of a full recitation:

II. THE HOUSE

Along with the first false sun
We got a visit from Agim
The woodman from near Prishtina

He brought us two red apples
Wrapped in a scarf
And the news that he’d finally got a house.

At last you’ve a roof over your head, Agim.

No, no roof
The wind tore it off

You’ve a door and windows then

No door and no windows either
The winter carried them away

You’ve four walls at least

I’ve not even got four walls
All I have is a house like I said

The rest will be easy.

The Jews say, “Listen to your enemy — God is speaking.” Agim, an Albanian from Pristina has spoken the truth that we all know in our hearts but cannot say and that, I believe, is the answer to our question. This truth is that Kosovo is our house. We built this house on Vidovdan 1389 and in it we still live. It is not stolen and can never be stolen: it has no doors, no windows, no roof nor walls. This house only has a sky, above it and under it, and as such, is very light. We do not leave this house when we go on one of our great migrations but take it with us. My ancestors brought this house from Old Kosovo to Dalmatia, where I found it, inherited it and in August 1995 took it with me to Serbia, back to Kosovo and then to Australia. You did the same. That and only that is the reason we are here today.

When I say that we are here today because of what we carry in our hearts I am speaking a simple and rather obvious truth. But this is a truth we often neglect and easily forget. These days, we usually forget it because we are angry at Agim. We are angry at Agim because we think he got his house because he stole it from us. In this anger, we start to think of Kosovo as some field in the south of Europe and something we once had but which is now stolen. You did not think of it in these terms as I was speaking today. I used the word ‘Kosovo’ over and over and you all knew that I was not speaking in the geographical sense. If Kosovo is just some field to us, or a province even, we would have to believe that we lost it on Vidovdan 1389, on the very day we gained it. When I say we gained it, I am not talking national mythology but plain truth. On that day, Kosovo Field could not have been stolen from the Serbian people because it did not belong to the Serbian people; the people neither had ownership over it nor could they ever hope to gain it. Kosovo Field and all around it belonged to the Serbian noble Vuk Branković, so only he could lose it. Only he lost it when the Turkish nobility and their vassals assumed ownership by right of conquest. So, I ask you, did the Serbian people lose on Vidovdan 1389 that which never belonged to them or did they gain their first common house, the abundant spiritual wealth in which we all shared equally, still share and always will share? The answer to this question you all know; it is not a national myth but a simple truth, and because of it we are here.

This will remain true regardless of which nobles or which nation calls Kosovo Field theirs. Remembering this, we start to understand that we have more reasons to celebrate on Vidovdan than to mourn. We start to understand that Kosovo is not the source of Serbian nationalism but of the Serbian nation; that it does not make us into nationalists but into those we are. Remembering this, the anger in our heart is replaced by love for our people, for all other peoples, even for those we are most angry at. Remembering this, we start to forgive Vuk Branković’s betrayal and acknowledge the service it did us and with this forgiveness to turn Lazar’s curse into Lazar’s blessing.