„Howdy, neighbor“ series – The lives of Serbs in Cernica

KoSSev is launching a new series of short video stories titled „Howdy, neighbor“ dealing with the lives of minority communities in Kosovo. The first reportage centers on the lives of Serbs in Cernica, a multiethnic village near Gnjilane/Gjilan – home to approximately 3,000 Albanians and about 120 Serbs.

Interethnic relations are relatively good at the moment, but often aggravated by politicians, the locals say.

Cernica residents reveal they are dissatisfied with the lack of jobs or low salaries and pensions. However, they are optimistic, expressing hope for a better life. Despite the hardships, the young people of Cernica see their future in this village and invite everyone who left to return.

Cernica used to be the home of approximately 700 Serbs, however, the poor post-war economy, but also the fragile security, forced the majority of Serbs to leave their homeland.

In an interview for KoSSev, one of the local Serbs, Milivoje Nisic recalls the events that people went through during the war in Kosovo.

“It’s a hard story to tell, I don’t like to talk about it. Sometimes, I cry over it. You know, we went through terror here. From July 1999 to 2004, seven people died. People who did nothing wrong. Right on their doorsteps. Our little Milos died at the age of four. His executioner killed him with a shot to the head, it was horrifying. To this day, no one faced any consequences for these crimes. It was horrible. Forty people were wounded, a dozen houses were damaged due to blasting, arson…” Nisic recalls.

He reveals that they now live peacefully. Nisic, however, complained about the current rather low standard of living, as opposed to the past when people lived more comfortably.

Apart from the school, which, as he says, is the only source of income in this place, part of the locals, both Serbs and Albanians, are also engaged in agriculture. And agriculture necessitates mutual cooperation.

“We are connected. I believe that our life without our neighbors, but also theirs without us, is impossible. You know, you need a neighbor. We trade with each other. We have to live, we procure all food staples here in Gnjilane, from the Albanians, of course, because they own those shops and all that. We have to sell our products to them because our customers are not just Serbs. Everything people obtain from agricultural production, it is normal for us to rely on trade with our Albanian neighbors,“ Nisic says.

Three churches and a mosque adorn the village.

“We did not take anything from anyone here, we live in our hearths, we live next to our church, we have never harmed anyone and we have not committed evil. Even today, we do not want to harm anyone, we like to live with people, to meet and talk to our neighbors, to communicate, to wish each other a good day, good morning, and not to perceive each other as enemies,” he said.

Goran Djordjevic, the principal of elementary school „Branko Radicevic,“ also says that living without one’s neighbors is impossible.

“Our neighbors lived with us even before 1999. I lived in Gnjilane where I had friends, I still have Albanian friends with whom I socialize, and grab a cup of coffee, but I think that they are slowly becoming aware that they have been manipulated with some unrealistic promises,” Djordjevic underlines.

Serb children in Cernica attend classes according to the curriculum of the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Serbia, but in inadequate conditions for the 21st century. Their school can be found in the middle of the village, housed in a building unfit for an educational facility, in a rented space, a mud-brick house, across from a large school building attended by children from the majority Albanian community.

Djordjevic stressed that before 1999, the conditions in the Cernica school were ideal for students.

“At the time, the school had specialty instructional spaces, it had a school gym, showers, and everything else that even the best schools in Serbia proper have. Today the situation is a little different, since 1999 we have been working in rented, private facilities. You can see where we work and function,” the principal said, noting that despite these conditions, they make an effort for students so that they enroll in the best high schools when they graduate.

One teacher, one student, that is the case in the majority of classes. Children are used to such a system, and as the principal claims, it has its advantages.

“We try to explain it to them like this – the individual work they have every day and in every subject, according to the plan and program of our country, usually must be paid for everywhere outside the territory of Cernica. Here, teachers focus on the students during the entire class. The teaching units that they go through, they do so in detail.”

Like the older generations, young Serbs believe that there is room in Cernica for everyone, despite the lack of things that young people in the 21st century have everywhere else in the world.

The village has only a shop, that is why the locals frequently trek over to one of the neighboring villages, to Partes, Kusce, Silovo. They say that they are used to it.

“Well, we are used to it. We are used to it and now it is normal for us. We miss lots of things, we miss going out, we miss cafes, we miss a city where we can go and take a walk, hang out and all that. All that is somehow an integral part of our life and it’s missing, but again, in a way, we are, so to speak, content,” Marija Stojanovic, a PE teacher, says.

Despite all the hardships, young people from Cernica say that they aren’t going anywhere.

„I plan to stay here, to protect our victims in general, their graves bind us to remain here and they are the foundation of this village, which has entrusted us to protect them and to persevere here as long as we can,“ said the Russian language teacher, Lazar Petrovic.

While planning their future in their native village, they invite everyone who left to return, including Albanians who also sought a better life outside of Kosovo.

“I sincerely hope that the time will come when people will understand that we don’t cause problems for each other, that this territory of Kosovo, that this place of ours, Cernica, was created for both. Nor are they bothered by us, nor should we be bothered by them,” the locals emphasize.

As to whether the lives of the citizens in Cernica will improve – it depends on the central and local authorities.

According to Cernica residents, the Serb community is invisible to the municipality of Gnjilane.

We also tried to find out what the local government is doing to improve the lives of minority communities, i.e. Serbs in Cernica, however, no reply arrived from the municipality of Gnjilane.

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