Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Velika Hoca, 14 Oct. (AKI) - By Vjekoslav Radovic
Just 600 Serbs now live in Kosovo's Velika Hoca enclave and many houses now stand empty after their owners moved to Serbia in search of a more secure and better life.
The isolated 12th-century village lies some 60 kilometres southwest of Kosovo's capital Pristina, amid rolling hills that are dotted with vineyards.
“My family roots here are centuries old, and I want to remain and raise my children in this place, but it’s not going to be easy,” Marko Spasic, 24, told Adnkronos International (AKI).
An elementary school art teacher in Velika Hoca, Spasic is one of some 200 young people who decided to stay in this isolated remote village when the Serbian army and police pulled out of Kosovo after NATO's airstrikes in 1999 and it was placed under United Nations control.
Even Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in February has not weakened the determination of Spasic and others to stay.
“Apart from security, though, the key problem here is what to do and how to survive economically. There are no jobs. We can cultivate only about 20 percent of our land and we can’t move far away from the village,” Spasic told AKI.
To make things worse, electricity and water shortages are a part of every day life. “We measure time here by the hours when there is electricity, and when there is not,” Spasic added.
But Spasic finds encouragement in the fact that there are 64 pupils currently attending the local elementary school. For high school, they will have to move from the isolated village to Serbia, or the ethnically divided northern Kosovar city of Mitrovica.
“Only God knows how many will return and decide to seek their future here,” said Spasic.
The nearby city of Prizren was the seat of the Serbian medieval state, founded by Stefan Nemanja. Wine growing in the area dates back to the same era and is a Serb tradition.
Neglected vineyards are a sure reminder that there is no one to tend them and that their Serb owners had fled.
Three Serbs were killed while working their vineyards in Velika Hoca and Swiss peace-keepers from the international peacekeeping force (KFOR) stationed in Kosovo are now guarding the area from a hilltop above the village.
Before 1999, Kosovo produced some of the best wines in the former Yugoslavia, deriving mostly from area around Velika Hoca and from Suva Reka in the Prizren district of southern Kosovo.
Now, the villagers produce delicious, full-bodied, dry, red wine for their own use, although there is more wine than can be consumed.
“We live here like Martians,” says 67-year-old Dimitrije Micic, the head of the village office.
“No one can come to visit us, nor can we go out without police escort.”
Driving through Kosovo with Serbian number plates is very risky and Velika Hoca's villagers are escorted by KFOR peacekeepers when they take a bus to the Serbian part of Mitrovica for supplies.
About one half of Kosovo’s 100,000 remaining Serbs are concentrated in the north of Mitrovica, next to Serbia, and they have barely felt the effects of Kosovo's independence.
But the rest are dispersed in isolated enclaves throughout Kosovo protected by peacekeepers.
Last week an escorted bus was stoned in the nearby town of Malisevo. Some Serbs have acquired Kosovar automobile licence plates and travel unescorted.
“But what do you do if you get stuck in a hostile Albanian village? You may just vanish,” says Novica Savelic.
Three thousand Serbs have been killed or have disappeared since since 1999, according to the Red Cross.
“There are still some good Albanians,” says Bogoljub Stosic, sipping his exquisite home-made grape brandy rakija with his visitors. “There are good and bad people everywhere.”
His pre-war Albanian friend from nearby town of Orahovac calls at least once a week and asks if he needs anything. “Occasionally he drops in and brings supplies,” says Stosic’s wife Vida.
Their two sons have immigrated to Norway and started a new life there. They had paid 1,200 euros each to mediators to get visas. Thousands have emigrated over the past several years, villagers said.
“There is no life here, just bare survival,” says Micic. Serbia is fighting a diplomatic battle to retain Kosovo under its control and is paying each family in the enclaves an equivalent of 150 euros per month in Serbian dinars to help them stay.
In the enclaves much trading is still done in dinars, although euros are the official currency throughout Kosovo. But the help from Belgrade is not enough - even to survive economically, Micic said.
“The future here is very bleak,” Micic, a retired economist, said. “As long as there is any Serbian state presence here, there is some hope. But if that vanishes, the village will simply die away."
Apart from wine, Velika Hoca is famous for its 13 churches, some dating back to the medieval time, dedicated to various Serbian Orthodox saints. But there are no longer enough parishioners to fill them.
Last weekend Velika Hoca celebrated its patron saint St. Cyriac the Ascetic. Serbs from other enclaves came escorted by the KFOR to join the celebration, which lasted until the small hours.
Kosovo's Archbishop Artemije held a special outdoor mass (photo), local youngsters performed traditional folk dances and children sang old Serbian songs
A young French diplomat who came from Pristina, felt uneasy about France’s recognition of Kosovo independence.
He referred to the long-standing friendship between Serbs and the French, pointing out that France was “always on the side of the oppressed."
"In 1999 it seemed to be the ethnic Albanians, but now the situation is completely reversed,” he said.
“The killing had to stop, but now the only hope for the future of Kosovo is that ethnic Albanians treat Serbs correctly,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named.