BUJANOVAC, Serbia, Mar 12 – On the court, they are not Serb, Albanian or Roma. The lanky teenage boys are all members of Play 017 — a basketball team bridging ethnic divides in southern Serbia.
As they dribble, pass and shoot for the net, the boys are focused on improving their technique and beating their rivals, not the simmering political tensions that have recently put their impoverished border region, Presevo Valley, in the news.
The southern valley, half of whose 70,000 residents struggle with poverty, is the only part of Serbia still home to an ethnic-Albanian majority after the former province Kosovo broke away in a 1998-99 war.
But since mid-2018 rumours have swirled that the region could be handed over to Kosovo as part of a territory exchange aimed at normalising ties between Pristina and Belgrade, which still refuses to recognise the former province’s independence.
One fear is that such border changes would deepen ethnic segregation in the Balkans, potentially sending Presevo Valley’s Serbs fleeing north to stay inside Serbia.
But the Serb coach of Play 017, Nenad Stajic, refuses to engage in such speculation.
“This is a sports club, it knows no religion, no nationality, no skin colour, no politics,” the 37-year-old told AFP, from the modest sports centre in Bujanovac, which lies some 15 kilometres (around nine miles) from the border with Kosovo.
“We are a team, we are Play 017, we have the same goal: winning games.”
– Building friendships –
Unlike other teams in the region, the club — whose name refers to a local telephone code — does not have any ethnic affiliation.
That has made it a rare space for building friendships across communities in a town where ethnic groups lead largely segregated lives, with different schools, bars, political parties and languages.
Hevzi Imeri, a 17-year-old Albanian player, says some friends disapproved of his decision to play alongside Serbs instead of with the all-Albanian team, Elita.
But he was drawn to “the high quality of training”, he told AFP on the sidelines of a recent practice, adding that his experience on the team, which is leading its regional youth league, had been “super”.
– ‘Can I play?’ –
According to Bujanovac’s mayor Shaip Kamberi, Albanians make up 60 percent of the municipality’s population, compared to 30 percent Serbs and 10 percent Roma.
Albanian children are taught basic Serbian in their schools, but few speak it fluently.
As for Serbs who speak Albanian, the mayor says they are “perhaps a dozen in the city”.
But in Play 017, the players, whose ages range from six or seven to 17, find ways to communicate.
“We are all together… that’s how I learned to speak Serbian better, Albanian not as much but I understand it,” said 17-year-old Roma player Bernard Murina, whose community faces widespread discrimination across the Balkans.
Play 017’s multi-ethnic history began in the early 2000s, a time when communal relations in Presevo Valley were at a low point after a brief Albanian uprising in the region left some 50 dead.
One day, an ethnic Albanian child entered coach Stajic’s office.
“He asked me if he could play,” Stajic recalled, smiling at the memory.
That player, now a 30-year-old host of a Serbo-Croatian radio show in Tirana, also remembers the moment clearly.
The coach “opened the doors for me and offered me the respect of his team,” Almir Selimi told AFP.
“These were the most beautiful but also the most difficult years of my sporting life, it was just after the war,” Selimi added.
He said he had to fend off hostility from Albanian friends, as well as pleas from his grandfather who feared that joining the mostly Serb rival of the Albanian team would bring threats to the family.
Today he remains friends with his former coach and is trying to organise matches between Play 017 and teams in Albania.
“Albanians and Serbs have a lot of mutual prejudices — until they get to know each other,” he said.
– Beating the odds –
Branislav Prokopijevic, an 18-year-old Serb player on the team today, agrees.
“This club has helped me get to know (people from other communities) and to see even what good people they are, and they are not how we often think they are,” he said, before dashing back to the court for a one-on-one bout with Murina.
The success of the Play 017 school, which also includes teams for younger players, may appear minor: out of 150 players, 15 are Roma, 10 are Albanian and the rest are Serb.
But in Bujanovac, even this amount of integration is unusual and has started to win over sceptics.
Today, coach Stajic has received more than 3,000 euros ($3,400) in funding from the local government.
He still remembers the time when dubious officials explained to him that “miracles last only three days.”
Nevertheless, life remains tough in Presevo Valley, driving many young people to eventually emigrate.
Players Imeri, Murina and Prokopijevic may someday leave the valley and its poverty. But for now they share the same dream: the NBA.
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