However, I share with them outrage at the failure of tens of commissions, monitors, mixed, foreign or local, who approach the border as a technical matter only, a line along which border markings are to be placed and labeled. They are forgetting human fates that are linked with those creeks, meadows, forests and pastures. They are forgetting that some of them have cemeteries, relatives, fields, brides, houses, springs, sheep pens, first loves, on the other side of the border.
For everything I had the chance to see, hear, and record, I am deeply grateful to Fr. Djura from Slavujevac, who persistently illegally crosses the border to read last rights, baptize or serve mass for his parishioners, to Hajji-Hodja Sellim Sellimi from Ribnica and all Muslims and Eastern Orthodox, believers and atheists who volunteered to talk with me, as well as to all the households that shared everything they had with me.
Once the demarcation finishes, a clerk in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will put the file in the drawer and the problem of the border will be closed, as far as he or she is concerned.
However, the closure of the file will not resolve numerous problems facing tens of thousands of inhabitants of the villages and hamlets lining the borders. If they were not full of daily toil, trouble, existential problems and fear, experiences and stories about the people living along the borders would be entertaining...
“We are connected to the Serbian electrical grid. Until recently the postman came across the border to deliver bills, but now the military chases him away. They say that he cannot cross the border illegally as he wishes. And he stopped coming, so that we can’t pay our electricity bills. Now they can cut off our electricity whenever they like. My children live in Tatarinovac, in Macedonia, they are citizens of Macedonia, but for grades 1 to 4 they attend school in Slavujevac, in Serbia. In grades 5 to 8, they have to switch to the school in Reljan, which is also in Serbia. What do you mean why? Simply, we don’t have a school, and our children have always attended school in Serbia because it is closest. Slavujevac is less than a kilometer [0.6 miles] from our village. You can get there in 15-20 minutes. On the other hand, the closest village in Macedonia with a school is 5 to 8 kilometers away, on foot. I’d like to see you walk 8 kilometers every day in winter, like now! Both police and military let the kids cross the border. There are a lot of them. They all go together, in a file. The little ones go to Slavujevac, the bigger ones to Reljan, in Serbia. They claim they go to school every day, but we have no way of knowing if that’s true, as we cannot go to school to check, as their parents. We don’t know how they are doing, but it’s fortunate that no one has failed a grade so far. And it’s a big trouble… We cannot go to school as parents, to talk to the teacher, to see that grades, attend school plays… the military won’t let us cross. It’s not easy for the kids. They cross illegally every day. We see them off to the end of the village, and then watch them cross the border, and wait for them when they come back, sometimes my brother Miodrag, sometimes I, sometimes someone else from the village. Not, it gets dark early, so we are afraid that something may happen to them”.
“We are officially insured in Macedonia [with the national health care service], and have Macedonian health care cards, but we go for medical treatment to Serbia, to Slavujevac. A sick person simply cannot go from Tatarinovac, Algunja or Meglence all the way to Nagoricane, or to Kumanovo to see a doctor. You’d have to walk the whole day. On the other hand, Slavujevac is a 20-minute walk away from both Tatarinovac and Algunja,” says Sveto Antevski from the village of Meglence.
“How do we go to Slavujevac? Along the road, illegally. So far, the doctor hasn’t sent anyone back, although we all have Macedonian health care cards, especially if a child is sick. Sometimes we cross the border illegally ten times a day. You need sugar, or you forgot to buy cigarettes, vinegar… You have to go to the store, and the store is in a different state, in Slavujevac. We don’t have a store, nor can we have it. The only road is to Slavujevac, so if a truck were to deliver goods, it would have to cross the border, illegally [there is no legal border crossing near Slavujevac]… There’s never been a border between us and Slavujevac and we don’t want to have one here. If the border has to pass this way, we want a legal border crossing,” Antevski says.
“In order to have a drink with my best friend, for Saint Nicholas, I’d have to walk to Algunja, from Algunja to Staro Nagoricane, at Staro Nagoricane I’d have to catch a bus for Kumanovo, from there get a different bus for Presevo, then from Presevo a third bus to Slavujevac, and lose a whole day in walking and riding on buses. All that when my house in Algunja and his in Slavujevac are 15 minutes away from each other, on foot, across an illegal border crossing. I’d rather cross illegally, even if they shoot me!” says Voislav Serafimovski.
“Everything is a problem. If someone dies, there is no priest to read him the last rights or to serve at the burial, or if there is a wedding, or a baptism, slava, blessing of the holy water… Until recently Fr. Djura from Slavujevac came, sometimes on foot, sometimes on his mule. Recently, the border guards caught him and accused him of trying to smuggle the mule over the border. And he was infuriated and said: ‘Die if you want, infidels, I won’t come anymore!’… But he’ll change his mind, he’ll be back by the next big holiday. What do you mean? How does he cross the border? He takes the road. There is a nice, paved road between Tatarinovac and Slavujevac, but there is no border crossing, so, officially, we cross illegally. All of us are criminals. I cross five times every day to pick up shoes from my customers in Slavujevac. I take them home and fix them here and then take them back to Serbia to the customers. I also go there to the store, to buy cigarettes, beer, etc.,” says Serafimovski.
“And the so-called river is so wide that you can spit from one side to the other,” Stoilko Stasevski from the village of Cvetisnica tells us about his “misfortune”. “Wild, pretty and clean, the river is our main source of water for cattle. It also powers our mills, on both riverbanks. As if we knew that the river was going to be a border and consequently picked the right side to build the mill!? My watermill is on the right bank. I put it there because of the river current at that place. Last year, during the snow and cold, just before Saint Nicholas [late December], I went to grind some wheat for the cattle. And the left bank is in the sun, it’s warmer. I decided to leave my mule on the left bank, to keep it warm, and tied it to a tree. I took my shoes off, crossed the river and started grinding. Suddenly, someone shouted from the other bank: ‘Raise your arms and get out of the watermill!’ I got scared and came out, covered with flour form head to toes. In front of me were soldiers with guns. ‘Now, come with us to the border post in Dlabocica, you illegally crossed the border’. Wait a minute, I said, let me get my mule, at least. ‘Forget about it! Look, the mule knows where the border is and it did not violate the law. Let it be’.”
“It’s a small river, but a big problem. That is the only water we can use for cattle. So we must take cattle to the border and face the soldiers. How many times have I had to deal with them? I don’t know, my son, I don’t keep track. I take the cattle to drink, soldiers come and take me to their border post, while the cattle stays behind and drinks,” Gjore Antevski from the village of Kokino says. “At first they thought that I was smuggling or stealing in Trgoviste or Klenike (towns in Serbia), and then I had an idea and painted all of my sheep with hair dye and told them ‘please, I can’t be stealing the same sheep every day, can I?’. Thus they relented.”
My host Sellman Azemi told me: “Screw those who decided to put the border right here. If we were to take you to Debelde or Vitina (in Kosovo) you’d see how close they are. And you’ve just arrived from Skopje and know how far it is.”
True, Debelde is only 15-20 minutes away on foot.
“It is not true that we want to secede and become a part of Kosovo; we just want to have normal communication with our fields and meadows (Tanusevci is at 950 meters [about 3,000 feet] above sea level and all the fields are in the fertile valley near Debelde). We want to be able to freely go to the market in Vitina, to be able to visit friends and relatives; there’s never been a border here, and we are like one family with Debelde and Vitina,” Azemi says.
Every day, 60 primary and secondary school pupils go from Tanusevci to Debelde and Vitina (in Kosovo) to school. I ask how, because that is a different state. “Illegally, mister journalist, illegally, and with fear; and there is no school here. Every day they cross the border twice illegally. For two-three days there are no problems and then a bad border patrol shows up and sends them back. Then, they don’t go to school for a few days, and then they try again, they struggle. There has to be a border crossing here. We cannot move fields, friends and the school to this side of the border. The first village in Macedonia with a school is 20 kilometers [12 miles] from here,” says Selam Asani from Tanusevci.
“Tanusevci has almost 800 inhabitants and we are forced to rely on Debelde and Vitina for most of our daily needs, such as health care and education. Half of our fields are on the other side of the border, as well as our relatives, parts of our families,” Sellman Azemi, president of the local commune Tanusevci, says.
“That’s why there must be one or two local border crossings in this area. That would be the way to assist the local population and resolve the problem with illegal crossings of the border. Crossings are needed near Brest, Malino, Gosince, and Globocica (in Macedonia) and next to Korbulic, Miak, Binac, Stancic, Zegra, and Ljubiste (in Kosovo).
“All of us are farmers and cattle breeders, and we’ve always sold our products in the markets in Debelde and Vitina. It is simply impossible for us to take our goods to Skopje,” say Sejfulla Shakiri, Xhemail Jakupi, and Amdi Serami. These problems are shared by the inhabitants of Malino and Blace. “We don’t even want to think about what would happen if this part of the border were closed for communication. Then, for every little thing we’d have to walk from Tanusevci, Brest or Malino to Ramno, then continue on foot to Brodec or Pobozje (all together 25 kilometers [about 16 miles]), to catch a bus and go to Kuceviste or Skopje.”
All the villages are on average 25-30 kilometers from the nearest towns and cities in Macedonia. There are only 6 border crossings along this stretch of the border. Four of them are international and 2 local (inter-state). That is far below the average needed and required by the current density of population on both sides of the border.
This article was realized within the framework of the project “research journalism” supported by the Macedonian Media Institute