The Macedonian Tendency: Macedonian Goranci in Kosovo

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Macedonian Goranci in Kosovo

By David Edenden

The Goranci are a Macedonian speaking slavi cMuslim population in Kosovo close to the Macedonian Border

Life Drains From Kosovo’s Shrinking Goranci Community

21 08 2007 Isolation and emigration condemn ancient community of Muslim Slavs to slow death in their mountain hideout.

By Olivera Stojanovic from Dragas

“We have taken up different religions, languages and cultures several times during our history so as to make life easier for ourselves and not perish,” says Aslan Hamza, a member of the Goranci ethnic community in Kosovo.

But eight years after the armed conflict between Kosovo Albanians and the Serbian government ended, Goranci like Hamza fear a complete loss of identity may be round the corner.

“This trends fits the bill of the present [Albanian-led] authorities,” he adds. “Because no matter how tiny we are as a community, we are still Goranci and we can’t be anything else”.

Goranci have lived in the mountains of southern Kosovo for centuries. The origins of their community are shrouded in the mists of time but it is widely thought that they are ethnic Slavs who converted to Islam under the Ottoman Empire, retaining the Serbian language but adopting the Muslim faith.

Their numbers were never large. According to the 1991 census, the triangular Gora region that they inhabit, wedged between Serbia, Albania and Macedonia, had a population of about 20,000 Goranci.

These days the number is far smaller and most experts believe no more than 6,000 remain in their native region – barely enough for the community to survive.

Trapped between the opposing forces of Serbian and Albanian nationalism, they have increasingly opted to go abroad, where they then face assimilation. If they stay at home, they face poverty and unemployment.

At the same time, the community has been torn by rifts – a repercussion of the loyalty they felt to the Serbian authorities up to 1999, which has now rebounded on them.

“Tiny communities always have to choose sides in conflicts and we are paying a high price for the fact that many Goranci willingly or forcibly joined one of the warring sides in the Kosovo conflict,” said a local resident on condition of anonymity. “We never had the option of being neutral,” he added.

The Goranci have suffered from Kosovo Albanian hostility in recent years for their loyalty to Serbia. Although their security situation appears to have improved lately, fear and distrust remain strong.

“Insecurity has crept into every pore of daily life as poverty and political squabbles have replaced fear of physical abuse,” says Abdi Alija, the Serbian government’s coordinator for Gora and a member of the Gora Civic Initiative.

“We are going through a most difficult time because help is nowhere in sight while we are under relentless pressure to accept assimilation,” Alija said. “Our problems are too serious for such a tiny ethnic group,” he added.

The inhabitants of the region are represented by two political parties, holding adverse positions. The Civic Initiative is regarded in Gora as inclining to maintain closer ties with Serbia while the Vatan Democratic Party is regarded as closer to Kosovo Bosniaks’ parties and is led by Kosovo’s Health Minister, Sadik Idrizi.

Idrizi believes Goranci can best prevent assimilation by joining the larger Bosniak community. The Civic Initiative sharply opposes this course, arguing that it will strip the Goranci of their identity and heritage.

“The fact that I declare myself as a Bosniak doesn’t mean I am not a Goranac, too,” Idrizi said. “No one can claim to be a more devoted Goranac than me but I do think taking up a Bosniak identity is the best defense against assimilation.”

He believes that blocking the community’s alignment with the Bosniaks is counterproductive and plays right into the hand of those “on Belgrade’s payroll”.

“A growing number of people realise that taking up the Bosniak identity is the key to our survival,” he adds. “More and more of them realise that we are not against Goranism at a local level; they have grasped the idea that qualifying Goranci as an ethnic group provides no firm guarantees for preserving our identity”.

His opponents, however, believe that support from Serbia, though insufficient, will keep the community alive on its own. “Around 350 people get monthly aid worth 135 euros,” Abdi Alija said. “It won’t solve the problem but it is at least some aid, offering Gora’s inhabitants hope that they can feel somewhat more secure.”

The political divisions among the population cut right through families. One father said he would never adopt any another identity after being a Goranac for 50 years. But his son insisted higher living standards were far more important than ethnic identity.

“I no longer care whether I am a Goranac, a Bosniak or something else,” the son said. “I don’t want to live like an old age a pensioner at the age of 38.”

Time does indeed seem to have come to a standstill in Gora, which recalls the world of 50 years ago. Daily routines are slow and most of the area’s inhabitants seem in no hurry to get anywhere.

“We used to live from raising cattle but now there aren’t more than 50 cows left in the whole region,” Alija Vurani said. “Many people are unemployed after the only region’s only factory, which fed so many families, closed its doors after privatisation.”

Vurani feeds his family of five from his pension. His wife, Safija, adds to the family budget by knitting handicrafts that she sells to the occasional customer.

“Buyers show up over the summer when the exiles working and living abroad come here on holiday,” she said. “Tradition is still strong here, especially when young couples marry, and my handicraft make nice wedding presents.”

The Gora region comes alive during the high summer but is depressingly still for the other nine months of the year. Alija Vurani says people are still leaving and few are coming back. The young and able depart at the first opportunity, leaving only the old and helpless behind.

“There are many educated people here, doctors in particular, but there are no hospitals and health centres in our villages, so our children leave because they can’t get a job,” he pointed out.

Kosovo unresolved status and the uncertainty clouding its future is also detrimental to the position of Goranci.

There are around 1,200 pupils in the five primary schools and one secondary school in Gora. Most of the curriculum is in Serbian because most pupils do not speak Albanian and continue their education in Serbia. Only in a handful of villages are classes held under the reformed Kosovo curriculum in Bosniak.

But Serbia does not recognize that curriculum, so those pupils can only continue their education in high schools in Bosnia, Macedonia and elsewhere.

“The parents don’t like the reformed Kosovo curriculum as otherwise they have to educate their children abroad and that requires money,” Abdi Alija said.

Apart from a section of the Pristina University, which has relocated to the northern, Serb-controlled part of Mitrovica, Kosovo has no higher education in Serbian, either.

With few prospects ahead of them, many young people in Gora spend their time in ramshackle bars. Nedzmedin, aged 26, sits alone in one - a smoke-filled windowless room where the only decoration is a giant poster of Serbia’s folk star, Lepa Brena.

“I have a coffee in the morning and then I take a stroll through the village,” he said. “Afterwards, I take the cattle to the pasture and that’s how my days go by. I don’t know what I would do with myself it weren’t for tranquillisers.”

There is a high demand for such drugs in Gora. “So the days pass somehow, and the pills cushion my anger over the way I’m not able to change anything, or make any money,” Nedzmedin said.

The young man believes he will leave Gora some day, just like his elder brother. His disappointment has been made stronger, he says by the various promises that the Serbian government and international institutions have “failed to keep.”

Abdi Alija concurs. “It is a matter of when rather than if all those who can leave the region will do so,” he said.

Olivera Stojanovic is a Belgrade-based free lance journalist. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.

This article was published with the support of the British embassy in Belgrade and National Endowment for Democracy - NED, as part of BIRN's Minority Media Training and Reporting Project.

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