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South Serbia's Youth Look to a Future That Blurs Ethnic Division

Located some 350 kilometers south of Belgrade is the town of Bujanovac. It's a quiet place full of cafes and mismatched houses. The kind of place where children are free to roam the streets because there is always a neighbor watching from a nearby window.

Though the Kosovo War is widely known in the international community, most people outside the region aren't aware there was also an armed conflict here, in the southern Serbian municipalities of Bujanovac, Preševo, and Medvedja. It ended in 2001 and the municipalities did not separate from Serbia. It's a recent history that many communities are still reckoning with.

For this reason, I expected the ethnically mixed town of Bujanovac to be defined by its divisions. However, when I sat down to speak with youth from different ethnic groups about their experiences in Bujanovac, a new picture emerged.

I facilitated a conversation with five young women in Bujanovac: two Albanians, two Serbs, and one Roma. There wasn’t an ounce of hate between them. They met one another with humor, openness, and respect. As it turns out, the shared struggles of being teenagers, and teenage girls in particular, bound these high school students together, regardless of their families’ backgrounds.

From left to right: Isabella, Sanja (hidden), Shqipe, and Milica. The girls sit on a bench outside of the Albanian-language high school.

From left to right: Sanja, Milica, Shqipe, and Isabella. The group enters Isabella's home, where her mother greets us with sweets.

“How does everyone know each other,” I ask.

All five girls start to look around the table, searching for an answer that makes sense for a nonsensical question like this because, of course, they just do.

“It’s kind of weird because we don’t know how we know each other,” one of the girls named Nita answers. Everyone laughs.

"Every day is the same," her friend Shqipe adds.

Nita was perhaps the most confident of the group in her English. She is freckly-faced with light eyes and an eager smile. She speaks of dream trips to National Parks in America and her love of photography. Though she is most interested in studying psychology, she believes Law to be a wiser and more secure career path.

Shqipe is her classmate at the local Albanian-language high school. Shqipe is unapologetically herself from the first moment I meet her. She doesn't hold back from expressing her emotions, or fear others seeing her as "less precious" for doing so. In fact, this idea would rightly tick her off. Yet she remains obviously precious to everyone around her. Shqipe is also a talented photographer, though her real passion is for medicine. She grew up in a Serbian neighborhood and seems to be known to every person in town.

Nita and Shqipe cross paths near school.

Across the table from me is Sanja. She has a quiet strength, with the tough exterior typical of so many teens, but with a notably tender soul. She held back a bit at first, but opened up more and more throughout our conversations, revealing the sweetness and levity inherent in her character. She wants to be an obstetrics nurse, which, given my first impression of her, seems quite perfect.

Milica reminds me of some of the friends I grew up with. She isn’t afraid to be silly, but also appears to be fiercely loyal. Throughout our conversation, whenever someone gets upset, she is the first to offer up words of support. Milica used to be interested in medicine, but now would prefer to teach English. She lives in the tallest building in Bujanovac, near the town’s Orthodox church.

On my left is Isabella. She is a member of the Roma community and attends the Serbian-language high school along with Milica and Sanja. In fact, she is the only member of her community enrolled in the school and is, therefore, defying stereotypes at the age of 18. Isabella bubbles over with joy in every interaction. She plans to become a doctor and will attend medical school in the fall.

From left to right: Isabella, Milica, and Sanja. Posing for a photo outside of Sanja's home.

The five girls spoke of their appreciation for the closeness of the community here, but also bemoaned the lack of privacy inherent in growing up in a place this size.

“Oh, she’s the lawyers daughter and he’s the doctor’s son. And why are you doing this? Why would you wear that?” Nita says, impersonating the older people in Bujanovac. “You know, it’s a small town and people talk. Everyone knows everything about everyone.”

Nita continues, "some older people or some parents could see you with a guy, and maybe he's only your friend and you have nothing with him, but they would be like, ‘she’s going out with this guy they must have something.'"

"And after one day or two days everybody knows that," Milica says, nodding along.

As Sanja puts it, "people will always talk."

Sanja outside of her home.

I tell the girls that this sounds very similar to small towns in America. They seem surprised to hear this. As we discuss further, Shqipe starts laughing.

"I went to the store with my friend Ines," she starts, "and woman saw us and she asked ‘are you engaged?’"

Shqipe is cracking up at this point. So much so that she has trouble finishing the story.

"And I was holding a plastic bag with lemons, and they fell down," she exclaimed, expressing the shock of that awkward moment. By now, all the girls are roaring with laughter.

"Where is your ring," one of them asks.

Nita and Shqipe laugh over some old photos in Shqipe's home.

After calming down, Nita explains that "the mentality, this gossiping thing, this makes it hard to live here." She continues, "maybe that’s the reason we want to leave from here, or a part of the reason."

All five girls want to go away to big cities for university. Though it’s much more expensive, Shqipe and Nita will likely head to Pristina or Tirana for university so that they can learn in their native language, Albanian. For Milica, Sanja, and Isabella, who all attend the Serbian-language school in Bujanovac, Belgrade or Niš are the most appealing options.

The most difficult issue when thinking about their futures is the economic situation here in Bujanovac. They all want to leave for school, but feel that they might need to stay gone in order to make money. Especially because the only secure jobs that they know of here are at cafes.

Nita laments, “You finish university and then you work as a waiter. The saying a professor said of a university in Pristina… he said ‘how can I drink this coffee when the waiter who is serving me is my best medicine student?’”

“It’s like a poison,” Shqipe adds, completing the anecdote.

“It’s like a poison to me. I can’t drink it,” finishes Nita.

Even during the school days, many cafes overflow with students skipping class and bopping their heads to the latest Serbian and Albanian hits (if not American hip-hop imports). It’s one of the businesses here that will never go out of business, so everyone confirms the truth in this tale.

The walls of Nita's bedroom, which she shares with her two sisters. A baby photo of her is framed to the left of some homemade decorations that say Just keep on dreaming.

Beyond waitressing, there aren’t many job opportunities here for them, so they likely won’t return after their studies. Even though they understand that some things about this town are special.

When she leaves, Isabella says she’ll miss “family, here, the place, and […] friends because I was born here and I am going to school here always.”

Shqipe jokes that she would miss “the warmth of this stupid town,” then points to the audio recorder and laughingly tells us she’s forgotten that I’m recording this.

Though many things connect these teens, Nita, Shqipe, Sanja, Milica, and Isabella are most vulnerable and understanding when discussing the struggles they have faced in high school. Each of the girls has experienced issues with teachers or bureaucracy at school, and hope for a better system for future students.

Inside a science classroom.

Exterior of the Albanian-language high school, which was recently built.

When I inquire about the main difference between their schools, at first they say it’s basically the same. Then, when I ask if they use the same books, a different picture appears.

“We Albanians don’t have books because the books are in Serbian,” Nita responds, “and when they tried to send us books from Kosovo, they didn’t let it. It’s politics again.”

Milica, Sanja, and Isabella are shocked. They didn’t know that this was the case.

“We have to photocopy some translations,” Nita adds. These are translated using Google Translate or other similar services, instead of being professionally translated.

“Like a script. No colors, no images,” Shqipe says, frustrated.

“I don’t understand,” Isabella says, concerned and perplexed.

This has been an issue covered by Serbian and Balkan news outlets. While politicians take their time battling it out and drumming up ethnic tensions, students suffer.

Nita says, “I hope that my sisters and my brothers, one day they’ll have books. Because I’m graduating this year and it’s kind of over for me, but other people really need the books.”

For Milica and Sanja, the main complaint is making do with an outdated school building, and some outdated teachers.

“Some of them are trying to be strict and they can’t be strict,” Milica states, meaning that some teachers don't warrant students' respect. Impersonating her teachers, she shouts: “Don’t talk! Listen to me! Don’t talk! Listen to me! Repeat what I said!”

Shqipe builds on this sentiment: “Some teachers in our school are strict but offer nothing. They offer nothing. And I don’t like that, because how can I learn a lot and he’s offering nothing? For example, in some subjects like gynecology the teacher is not as strict, but he offers a lot, so why he wouldn’t expect from us a lot?”

Milica and Shqipe walking through Bujanovac.

“Some teachers are really bad,” echoes Milica.

The girls do have some good teachers though, and they discuss the positive ways in which they’ve impacted their lives. They just wish that quality was consistently matched on both sides.

By far, the most upsetting stories were ones that shook the loving world these young people have managed to make for themselves.

Shqipe spoke of one terrible experience she had with a teacher.

“I had a really hard situation when I was on second grade,” (meaning the second year of high school). “My chemistry teacher told me that I’m crazy ‘you can never understand chemistry, you are stupid.’”

The girls all express concern as Shqipe tells her story. After taking a special course in chemistry outside of school, she realized she actually had a great talent for it.

“It’s much easier. I understand everything, I don’t even need something to explain. I don’t know why he hated me, I really don’t know why…”

“Because you are too smart,” says Milica.

“That’s the reason,” Nita confirms, adding that she had problems with the same teacher. “It’s hard for us. We’re teenagers and we need someone to understand us. We need someone to bring us up and not bring us down.”

Isabella has been mostly quiet during our talk, but finds her space in the conversation.

Isabella in her family's hallway, pointing out some of her and her brother's accomplishments.

“I have teacher, she hate me because I’m Roma,” she tells us. Prejudice against Roma people is a huge problem throughout Europe. “[The teacher is] always talking to me ‘you are Roma, you are…'” She pauses here.

“Kako se kaže prljava,” she asks in Serbian. Unfortunately I understand enough of the language to know which word she is trying to translate.

“Dirty,” Milica answers.

“Dirty. Yes.” Isabella now switches to Serbian to tell the full story. Nita translates: “It was on the first year of high school, and then after she said those things she told her father and the principal.”

Isabella showing the rest of the girls a typical Roma outfit for attending a wedding.

Milica tries on Isabella's dress.

Isabella’s father has an NGO in Serbia called OFER that helps educate and empower Roma communities throughout the country. After he came to the school, the teacher had to personally apologize to Isabella for her disrespectful treatment.

In moments like these, when ethnic tensions do arise, they don't have the power to breed hate in the young people I'm seeing. Instead, these moments act as a rallying cry for their needed support of one another.

Otherwise, they choose to focus on the good times.

"Last year, in the summer, there were some basketball games here and ping pong, and people gathered together. There were Albanians, Serbs, Roma. Everyone was there," Nita recalls.

"It was very nice. We’re all together and we’re having fun," responds Milica.

"In the summer, we have this program of traditional dancing," adds Nita.

"And music! Albanian, Roma, everything," says Isabella.

Nita beams, "in summer it’s more alive. It will be a total different town."

Shqipe in her club house, an abandoned building that she and her friends fixed up. When I ask what she likes best about the place, she says Everything… I like the feeling when we are here.

Nita had never been to the club house before. Here she is noticing some details on the wall.

It’s clear to me that these five will not fulfill anyone else’s ideas of who they should be, or who they should spend their time with. They connect over the fatigue of their town’s old narrative of separatism instead of being, well, separated by it.

When I ask if some people in Bujanovac have a problem with seeing teenagers from different ethnic groups hanging out, they answer honestly: yes.

“Some people are just stuck,” says Nita.

It's quiet for a moment. "So, what can you do," I ask.

“We can just go out together to spend more time together, all of us,” Sanja responds. “We are all the same, we are all people.”

Shqipe, Nita, and Milica chatting in the club house.

“I think in Bujanovac, Albanians, Serbians, and Roma are a lot separated because of politics,” Shqipe says.

I hear “yes” from everyone as they nod in agreement.

“Because it kind of exists a hate from a long time ago,” Shqipe adds.

“This city is full of hate,” Milica responds.

“Do you think so,” I ask.

A resounding yes from all around.

“I know that. We all know that, but just we don’t say that,” Milica explains.

Shqipe responds, “I think we cannot live in the past.”

Milica agrees. “We have to watch future and present, but to leave [the past] behind us, that’s the best thing.”

There is a consensus among everyone that this is the best way to live.

“But, is it difficult for older people maybe,” I inquire.

Another yes from the group.

“I think older people are like that because they have seen a lot, a lot,” Nita says. “And they have been through a lot, and they just can’t accept me going [with] me and her, her, and her,” Nita adds, pointing to Milica, Sanja, and Isabella. “They just can’t accept those things, but we are tired of those thoughts, and those words, like ‘no, no, no.’ We’re young, and why can’t we just live all together?”

Shqipe, sitting in her bedroom with Milica.

Milica reacting to some funny photos.

Nita's words were like a song. One that would ring true in a number of different countries, during a number of different historical moments. They don't want to accept what the older generations expect of them. They don't want to hear no. They just want to live together, in peace. Though plenty of forces have worked to pit these communities against one another, many shared experiences between these young women developed a strikingly similar world view within each of them: forward looking, without room for old prejudices.

In turn, I look forward to seeing where their drive and positivity will take them, as well as their communities. Though being a teenager comes with many disadvantages, it also comes with the ability to hope and dream of a new future. My hope for them is simply to keep that transformative vision and energy, otherwise known as love, alive.

Milica, Sanja, Shqipe, and Nita walk towards Nita's home.


I would like to thank these young women and their families for sharing their stories and opening their homes to me. Another special thanks to Berat Idrizi for arranging the conversation.

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