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

Orahovac is one of the few urban areas still occupied by Serbs following the 1999 conflict in Kosovo. Twenty three years later, at first glance, life appears to be normalizing. The part of the town inhabited by Serbs is no longer enclosed by barbed wire and KFOR checkpoints. Trade is reuniting people who have been divided by the heavy burden of conflict, and for now it’s mostly left at that.

Serbs from Orahovac reside in several streets surrounding the Church of the Assumption of Mother of God, which they describe as a pillar of survival. In the past, more than 3,000 Serbs lived in Orahovac, and now, there are about 300 of them, including more than 70 children.

One of the remaining Serb residents of Orahovac is Damjana Sutakovic. She works at the Youth Center, which opened in 2000. It survived all this time with the purpose of uniting people from the Serbian and Albanian communities, encouraging communication between them and providing space for them.

“This youth center is very important for the youth because it delivers plenty of educational experience and various languages courses. They can even attend the courses they want and dabble in what they learned afterward. When it comes to younger children, the content is more entertaining, so that they spend free time here, instead of wandering around in the heat when the sun is very strong or during winter. We often have different activities here. We mark numerous important dates that are significant for both youth and younger children,” Sutakovic says, adding that children of all ages come to the Center – 6 year-olds, first graders, all the way until they start college.

Orahovac also did not escape the departure of young people trend. There are fewer and fewer young people, Serbs and Albanians alike. According to Damjana Sutakovic, it also influenced the activities of the youth center.

Damjana was born in Orahovac and she spent her whole life here. She says that life here is not easy or simple.

„I live here, I got married, and I had two children here. My son started first grade, and I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter who goes to kindergarten. As for my private life, apart from this job that means a lot to me, it’s a little harder. First of all, it’s hard for children who don’t have a place to spend their free time after school. They just usually ride a bicycle around the church. And as for us adults, we want to take care of the children who stayed here, to provide them with better conditions and a better life, so we try as hard as we can.”

At the beginning of the street lies the Health Center. Although it functions according to the system of the Government of Serbia, both Serbs and Albanians often use its services. Damjana speaks highly of doctors and medical staff and adds that things are very difficult for the elderly.

„As for the elderly, we have a sick family member, our health institution is doing as best as it can. But as far as the elderly are concerned, whenever they get sick, they have to travel to Mitrovica,“ she said.

In her words, the most common interethnic problems are the „squabbles“ between children on the playground.

„We, the adults, are aware of the situation, so we mind our business, we want to earn a living. You know what the situation is like after the corona and now after what is happening in the world. Whenever we go downtown for supplies, and we are forced to go there because we don’t have a lot of shops, boutiques, markets. I never had any problems so far.“

On the street, we meet Esref Kaja, a senior citizen of Orahovac, who says that a bad standard of living is the biggest problem and that there are no ethnic problems.

„We can say that things are not so bad, but the standard has declined sharply, as is the case everywhere, otherwise we lead normal lives. There is no entertainment as it used to be, there are no sports or cultural activities, there is practically nothing. It’s a paralyzed life. The only good thing is that we don’t have any ethnic problems, we live normally as we’ve always lived. The crisis is the same as everywhere else,“ Kaja argues.

Esref Kaja points out that there is no active social life here for older citizens, citing this as one of the problems.

„The elderly have no place where we can gather, neither do the young people because there is no sports or cultural center. It all fell apart abruptly because there are no activities.“

Esref adds that the lives of Serbs and Albanians in Orahovac, regardless of the past, are not that bad today, revealing that he misses some friends who left Orahovac a long time ago.

„Well, I can say that it’s still at a good level, regardless of the past ethnic conflicts, and after the war, everything calmed down. Now they come and go, I have a lot of friends and I miss some of them because I spent my youth with them. Like our children, Serbian children also left. And we have a big lack of young people. There used to be cultural and fun activities in Orahovac, and now there’s nothing.“

Kaja remembers better days when Orahovac’s factories were open. According to him, the town now faces high unemployment, and large investments are essential in order for things to change.

After the industrial period, and the factories that Orahovac used to boast of closed, the residents are today exclusively oriented toward agriculture, with the financial help of their children who have gone abroad, says Kaja.

The young people who stayed behind have hard lives, they have no social activities or space where they can spend their time, reveals Mila Zecevic, a student from Orahovac. She says that the days here are monotonous.

„The life of young people here is monotonous and boring. There’s no youth center where they can gather. There is not a single Serbian cafe in Orahovac. So, this is primarily a problem of young people,” she said, adding that the elderly also spend their days inside.
Mila reminds that they raised money to build a gym.
“Children play on the street, they don’t have a playground, but thank God, we raised money to build a gym. The construction will start soon and things will be better.“

She says that life here is generally not easy, but that the Serbian community miraculously managed to survive.

With God’s help, we hope to survive and live better lives, so I can freely say that there is a future

She also confirmed that she never had any problem with her Albanian neighbors, and that they freely visit Albanian-owned stores or Kosovan institutions.
On the other hand, Dragisa Velikic says that he is not satisfied with the current situation in the part of Orahovac inhabited by Serbs. He says there are very few people left in the town.

He has almost no contact with his Albanian neighbors, he does not go to the market because, as he says, the people he was friends with before the war now refuse to even say hi to him.

“Well, let me tell you, 23 years after the bombing, I didn’t go to their market, I don’t want to see anyone, I had a good coexistence with them before. And I’ve been to the shops two or three times, some people are afraid to say hi, so I stopped going.“

Unlike Zecevic, Velikic believes that there is no future in Orahovac because there are fewer and fewer children and young people.

„I don’t believe there is a future here, I worked at the school for 17 years and there are fewer and fewer students.“

His neighbor, Ranko Dedic, says that he has good cooperation with Albanians, he visits their shops and they visit him.

Dedic is engaged in viticulture, producing 4,000 liters of wine a year. He purchases grapes from his Albanian neighbors. He assesses that inter-ethnic relations greatly improved in recent years.

“I worked for years on the plantations in viticulture, I cooperated with everyone and with this whole part of Orahovac. We visit each other, we respect each other. I travel to Vrnjačka Banja almost every week and we have no problems.“
Dedic is optimistic about the future. He says that we are all human and that we should have good relations with everyone.

„No matter what, we are all neighbors and human.”

He adds that the biggest problem of young people is work, as well as the mass departure of young people.

„Our government and our president should do their best to help these young people a little. Not simply by giving them money, but by creating jobs. ‘Here, we have an x number of shops, some machines for them to print something, to employ them’.“

While the elderly, who remember bad times, are used to adversity, there are fewer and fewer prospects for the youth in Orahovac. A number of citizens are largely engaged in viticulture, and perhaps the key to the successful future of this town lies in the development and expansion of this activity.

This is the seventh episode in the “Howdy, neighbor” series.

The first episode in the series centered on the lives of Serbs in Cernica, a multiethnic village near Gnjilane. Currently, about 3,000 Albanians and 120 Serbs live there. Read more.

The second episode dealt with the lives of Serbs in the villages of Suvo Grlo, Banje, and Crkolez in the Metohija foothills. Read more.

The third episode examined the lives of Serbs in Babin Most, a multiethnic village in the Obilic municipality. Read more.

The fourth episode highlighted the lives of the Roma in the Roma Settlement in South Mitrovica. Read more..

The fifth episode centered on the lives of the Gorani people in Gora and their tradition of celebrating St.George’s Day. Read more.

The sixth episode testified to the good neighborly relations between Serbs and Bosniaks in Leposavic. Read more.

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