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Unlikely matchup: Muslim Albanians marry Christian Serbs and help reverse population decline
SAGONJEVO, Serbia (AP) ' Not in her wildest dreams did Edmonda ever imagine she'd marry a guy like Zoran, have his baby and live in his country.
She's an Albanian Muslim, he's an Orthodox Christian Serb ' and their people have been mired in a web of ethnic and religious hatred over Kosovo's bloody war for independence.
But the 36-year-old Edmonda Kardaku did wed Zoran Tomic, joining hundreds of compatriots, mostly Muslims or Roman Catholics, who have broken deep taboos by marrying men from rural Serbia, where women have been fleeing to the cities or abroad and causing an alarming population decline.
Serbia and Albania have been uneasy neighbors for generations. But when war exploded over ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo's attempt to break from Serbia in the late 1990s, disdain turned to murderous rage.
Kosovo's 2008 independence declaration, backed by most of the international community, deepened animosities.
But for both sides, it seems, sheer survival has begun to trump enmities to open the path to these unions.
To be sure, suspicion and bad blood still linger, so do prejudices. Take Zoran's own mother, who kept referring to Albania as "Muslimania." Edmonda, said 79-year-old Radojka Tomic, "is OK. But she comes from Muslimania. She doesn't eat pork."
Zoran, however, says he represents a new generation that's free of such bigotry.
"I don't care what people think about my wife, they live in a different age," he said, adding he doesn't intend to force his wife to change her religion.
As for Edmonda, ethnic divisions and the fact her marriage was arranged count for little: She says she and her husband are in love.
"When I was young, my grandparents told me about this animosity, and so did my parents," she said as she sat on the porch of a modest brick house in this tiny mountain village that's reachable only by a steep, winding dirt track.
"But when I saw Zoran, no one could stop me," the four-month pregnant Edmonda said with a chuckle, glancing at her 37-year-old husband, who sat close by on a wooden bench. "It was love at first sight."
Zoran's long search for a bride took him from his remote community of some 12 houses in southern Serbia across the border to northern Albania. He made several trips to a village where he was introduced to dozens of women by an Albanian matchmaker.
"I didn't like any, until I met Edmonda," Zoran said.
It took a whole day of negotiations with her parents before they agreed to let her go, he said. Some financial persuasion also helped.
"I sold my favorite bull so I could dress her in gold," said Zoran. "That's an Albanian tradition called a bride price. I bought her a gold ring, a necklace, a bracelet and earrings. And finally they agreed."
Their love story stands in contrast to another couple in the same village, where the Serb is much older than his Albanian wife.
Zoran said the man does not allow the woman to communicate with the rest of the villagers, not even with Edmonda.
"He's old, so probably he fears he's going to lose her," Tomic said.
The flurry of Serbian-Albanian marriages started in 2008 when a group of elderly men from southern Serbia formed a group called "the Old Raska bachelors," after their region which includes the village of Sagonjevo.
Both Serbia and Albania ' like most of the Balkan nations ' are faced with a massive exodus of young people from rural areas in search of a better life, turning many small settlements into ghost villages. The ethnic wars in the Balkans in the 1990s accelerated the problem.
In Serbia, it's mostly women who are fleeing poverty and stagnation. But in Albania, it's the men who are relocating, says Momir Kovacevic, an Old Raska activist, explaining why this interethnic marriage arrangement works.
He said his group helped arrange some 40 marriages.
"The first precondition was that they liked each other," he said. "They jumped over (the ethnic) barriers."
Currently, there are some 8,000 pending immigration requests filed by Serb men for Albanian women they hope to marry, said Pavlo Jaku, a lawyer who represents Serbian minorities in Albania. About 1,000 such marriages have taken place.
"In Raska alone we now have more than 100 Albanian-Serbian marriages which have produced about 50 children," said Radosav Matovic, whose son married an Albanian woman. "And we have had just one divorce."
The average age in Serbia is 41 years and about 20 percent of people in this country of 7 million are over 65. In 370 villages not a single child was born in the past decade. With one of Europe's lowest birthrates, the population has been declining by an average of 55,000 people a year.
Despite the potential birthrate boost, some Serbian nationalists are furious about the marriages. They claim that the Albanians are extending the ethnic borders of Albania by marrying Serbs and having their babies.
"A Devilish Colonization Plan: A Greater Albania Through Sex," proclaimed a recent headline in the Belgrade nationalist Kurir daily.
People here scoff at such concerns.
"What does it matter if she is Albanian, she is smart and likes to work," Matovic said. "She's better than most of our women who flee to the big cities at any cost, even without having work or food."
Serbian authorities have not officially condoned the Albanian-Serb marriages, apparently fearing the arrangements could be considered by some human rights groups as bordering on human trafficking or sex trade.
"It's not human trafficking if the marriage is her voluntary decision and she has the right of choice," said Gordana Comnic, deputy speaker of Serbia's national parliament. "But if someone is forcing her into the marriage, it's a crime."
Serbian rights groups dealing with human trafficking and women's rights said so far they've had no complains from the Albanian brides.
"That doesn't mean there is no abuse," said Maja Savic of the Belgrade-based Atina NGO.
"They come from impoverished societies, they don't speak our language," Savic said. "They don't live in their own country, and don't know whom to turn to in case of trouble. The state should pay more attention to the possibility of abuse."
Still, in a sign of tacit official support for the interethnic unions, Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic recently granted Serbian citizenship in a televised ceremony to an Albanian women whose husband had died, leaving her alone to provide for their baby boy.
In an apparent move to ease the immigration procedures for Albanian women, Serbian and Albanian authorities agreed last month for the first time to lift visa requirements and simplify residence permit procedures.
Dacic last year gave a Serbian passport to Brazilian top model Adriana Lima under a special law that exempted her from the bureaucratic procedure after she married former Serbian NBA basketball star Marko Jaric.
"They may not be hitting the front pages of glossy magazines, but shouldn't Albanian women also deserve such treatment?" asked Ivan Petrovic, a Serb involved in mediating for potential couples.