BROD, Serbia – The man introduced himself as the village historian, reaching into his jacket and producing a notebook scrawled with figures for Kosovo’s Gorani population.
The figures showed a drastic decline since 1991, when Yugoslavia began tearing itself apart.
“We’re slowly dying out,” whispered a man sitting next to him in Cafe Nuno.
The village of Brod sits 1,500 meters up in the Sharr mountains at the southern tip of Kosovo, the breakaway province expected to declare independence from Serbia this weekend.
Its residents are Gorani, an ethnic minority that shares the Islamic faith of Kosovo’s two million Albanians, but the Slav identity and language of its Serb former rulers.
Albanians are suspicious of their Serb affiliation. And the Gorani lost their natural protector when NATO wrested control of Kosovo from Serbia to halt the killing and expulsion of Albanians by Serb forces in a two-year counter-insurgency war.
Around two-thirds of the 18,000 Gorani that lived in Kosovo before the war have already left for neighboring countries, driven out by the poverty and unemployment that scars the region.
Those who stayed feel marginalized, determined to teach their children Serbian but unable to understand the Albanian language of Kosovo’s new authorities.
AN ORPHAN COMMUNITY
“Independent, or dependent, it doesn’t matter,” said a man who identified himself as Bajram. “We have no work. We don’t know what to do. We live in complete uncertainty, and our room for maneuver is getting smaller.”
Sitting in his attic cafe, Husen Sutrak agreed. “People don’t care who’s going to declare what. People just need to survive,” he said. “No state has ever given me anything. No one ever came to offer me help.”
In the cafes of Brod, men play bridge and watch Serbia versus Russia in Davis Cup tennis. The harsh climate drives the rest indoors and only children run around the cobbled streets.
The lack of a mobile phone signal or transmission from Kosovo’s public broadcaster adds to the sense of isolation.
More than 1,500 people lived in Brod in 1991. Now there are just over 800. Through the window of Sutrak’s cafe, the Turkish flag flies from the mosque and “Bosnia” is written on walls.
No longer a real part of Serbia, some Gorani identify themselves as Bosnian, due to their shared Slav Muslim identity. Others look to Turkey, the Ottoman Turks having brought Islam to the Balkans during its 500-year rule over the region.
“I’m not Albanian, I’m not Serb,” said Sutrak’s brother, who asked not to be named. “We’re like a child without parents,” he said. “When a child is without parents, he turns to whoever offers salvation.”