Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Balkans' bakers keep on rolling

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Kosovo

Almost all the bakers of the old Yugoslavia were Albanians, from one small corner of Kosovo. They have lived through war and upheaval but the toughest test for some came in February this year when Kosovo broke away from Serbia.

he first poppies of summer are blood scarlet on the shores of the White Drim river as we drive out of Prizren, up onto the slopes of Mount Pashtrik.

The lunchtime bread in the largest village, Djonaj, is white and so fresh it melts like chocolate in your mouth.

Dine Rexhbecaj is 50 and home for a short break to see his family. He has eight children, six girls and two boys. They live here while he works in distant Zagreb, in Croatia, seven or eight months of the year.

"I like my work," he said. "But I would hope for something better for my children. Now that Kosovo is independent, I hope they can find work here and not travel abroad."

'Bread money'

The village streets bustle with women and children on their way home from school. Four little girls, each dressed in a different shade of pink, giggle by.

In a graveyard beside the road, children play ball, and brown cows graze among red and black Albanian flags.

Houses are being repaired with money sent from abroad, "bread money" one might call it. It goes towards new bathrooms in the traditional extended-family compounds, and to repair the tall outside walls and daunting gateways.

This is a male-dominated society but the men are gone, scattered to the four corners of the Balkans, to Serbia and Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia.


Working a baker's dozen of hours each day, they roll out the much sought after burek - spinach or cheese, potato or meat-filled pies - round breads and crescent-moon-shaped rolls, star-scattered with sesame seeds.

And when they finish their long shifts, the fathers can only dream of the children growing up without them.

"I started work as a baker in Montenegro when I was 13," Alush Maloku tells me in Planeja, a village at the end of a mountain road, hunched against the Albanian border.

"Then I came home and worked as a shepherd for 12 years."

Then he went back into baking, this time in western Serbia. All these places were part of one country, then Yugoslavia.

In 1979 when his father died, he came home to run the village shop. As the eldest son, he had to care for his family.

Trade map

We are sitting barefoot, cross-legged on a rug on his porch, looking across the valley at the ruins of his old house.

We knew we were in trouble when the Serbs stopped delivering our flour
Azem Collaku, retired baker

American B52 bombers blasted the Serbs into submission here in 1999 after the Albanian villagers had been driven out. The Serbian army, living in quarters nearby, sustained some of its heaviest losses in the air raids.

Unexploded bombs still lie buried deep in the earth. Alush said he knows of five people from a neighbouring village who have lost limbs as they stumbled across war litter.

"We paid a high price for liberation," he says.

"Why do all the men here become bakers?" I ask 79-year-old Azem Collaku from the village of Zym.

He rolls out a mental map of Kosovo, divided by traditional trades.

Father and son bakers Azem Collaku, on the right, and Afrim
Keeping it in the family: Azem Collaku, right, with his son Afrim

The bakers from the Harsi i Thata - the dry hearth - so called because of its paucity of water. The builders from a certain valley. The farmers from the flat, fertile lands between Prizren and Djakova.

Azem worked for 40 years in the family bakery in northern Kosovo, in the ethnically-mixed town of Mitrovica. In 1999, when the Nato bombing started, the hostility of the local Serbs to the Albanians increased.

Like all the Albanians here, he tells the history of the Balkans in bakers' terms.

"We knew we were in trouble when the Serbs stopped delivering our flour," said Azem.

So they had to stop baking.

"The strange thing was, the day we fled the city, the flour we had paid for weeks before actually arrived. But by then it was too dangerous to stay," he added.

Radical youths

His son Afrim worked in the Serbian capital Belgrade until January this year. Then Serb refugees from Kosovo smashed the windows of the bakery in a spate of anger, on the eve of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia.

"They didn't like the idea that we could come to work in their country, while they couldn't return to Kosovo," said Afrim, almost sympathetically.

Bakery in Pristina, Kosovo
Kosovo declared independence in February 2008

But he is hopeful the bakery will soon re-open after the defeat of Serb nationalists in last weekend's elections.

Only a month ago, radical youths in Sombor, in northern Serbia, handed out free bread outside an Albanian-run bakery to try to drive it out of business.

And like-minded youths posted a film clip of themselves on the video sharing website YouTube setting fire to another Albanian bakery. (You can see the video below)

In the Kosovan capital Pristina, Ramadan and Lerim from the village of Djonaj load logs into their wood-burning ovens, and mix flour and water and great cakes of yeast from Serbia into a stainless-steel drum.

"There is no better job than this," Ramadan explains. "You can sleep soundly knowing that the money you spend you earned with your own sweat."

He blows out the candles, by the light of which he kneaded the new loaves. Only the early morning sunshine breaks through the windows here.

1 comment:

Serbian Finest said...

your blog makes ma laugh so fucking much....
U fricken idiot, u really think u know something about Kosovo situation?
Have u ever been there?! huh?!
Have u even been to Serbia?!
U r making conclusions based on internet fact?!
Ofcourse Serbia is bad, and full of terorists!! Casue CNN says so :)
U Americans r so fucking primitive, u r the living example...
Motherfucker, Carla Del Ponte admited in her book, that Albanianse where kiling Serbs for Orgens, u fucking idiot!!!
Im really amused by your blog, it was really fun :)
Have a nice life, living in lie...
And dont vorrey, if i see any American people in my country, i will wish them a very warm welcome :)))
Especially cause of people like u!