Borje lies in northern Albania, but has closer connections to Kosovo – as well as an interesting, if somewhat vague, connection to Bulgaria.
At the centre of Borje, a village deep in the mountains dividing Albania and Kosovo, café owner Fatos Ollomani, 49, develops his multiple passions as a local healer and as a collector of old weapons and horses.
In his three-storey tower-like café, he shows off his collection, which includes an old Austrian-made revolver and some swords. “I bought them from the locals. One of them is some 750 years old,” he claims, pointing to a marking at the end of a sword.
Ollomani is a far-from-unusual character in Borje, a village of some 900 whose inhabitants lovingly preserve stories and traditions drawn from a variety of sources.
Three years ago, Albania declared the village home to an ethnic Bulgarian minority.
Some were nonplussed. The village has rich traditions of its own but no visible connection with Bulgaria, though many are Gorani a Slavic Muslim community that straddles Kosovo, North Macedonia and Albania and whose language is Slavic.
The villagers are more proud of the ancient grandfather’s clock that used to keep time in the mosque, a 150 year-old-linden tree and their curious wedding traditions.
Almost each house has its own relics, like those of Ollomani, that are passed on from one generation to another.
Borje lies in the municipality of Kukes in the far north of Albania, but it is easier to get there from Kosovo, which includes crossing the border twice at the Shishtavec-Krushevë and Borje-Glloboçicë crossings.
Under the terms of a memorandum of understanding between Albania and Kosovo, only locals can use these crossings, but police also allow the same favour to journalists.
A paved road links nearby Glloboçicë village with Dragash in Kosovo but Borja is almost cut off from Kukes and the rest of Albania.
About half of the 900 inhabitants eke out a living by collecting medicinal herbs, which are then sold in Dragash while some 100 locals work in construction in Kosovo, usually for some 25 to 30 euros a day.
Kosovo also supplies the village with healthcare.
“During the communist era in Borje there was a hospital, a dentist and a pharmacy while today we don’t have any medical personnel,” Festim Collaku, the elder of the village, told BIRN.
“We go to Dragash in Kosovo for both healthcare and dentistry,” he added.
Long-ago connection to Bulgaria
Novruz Mehmeti, headmaster of the village’s elementary school, thinks that the swords in Ollomani’s collection might have come to the village from the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-8.
“There has been no battle fought here so they might have been brought from abroad. At Plevna in Bulgaria in 1877, some 76 inhabitants of Borje were taken as ‘nizams’ [recruits of the Ottoman army]. Only one of them came back alive,” he adds.
Plevna was a key battle in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and decisive in the liberation of Bulgaria from centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule.
While the provenance of the swords is not clear, Mehmeti has attempted to reconstruct information about the migration of the village’s inhabitants and has searched Austrian archives in Vienna.
According to the 1918 census, he found out, the village then had some 880 inhabitants, adding that some 48 locals were absent from the census day because they were working as pastry cooks in Bosnia, in today’s North Macedonia, Romania or in Bulgaria.
Mehmeti says the locals often emigrated to towns in Bosnia, such as Sarajevo, Bihac or Zvornik, mainly due to their shared Muslim faith.
After the border was shut following the communist takeover in Albania at the end of World War II, they left tales of the profitable businesses and other riches they had left behind.
The continuous migration of most of the male population has left its mark on the customs of the village.
In most of rural northern Albania, life followed the patriarchal dictates of the so-called Kanun of Lek Dukagjini, a medieval law code.
But not in there parts. “We in the Gora area didn’t have the Kanun. As the men went to emigrate, life was organised by women and they had authority. Women are respected here,” Mehmeti says.
A village tale tells of 18 wells dug out in the 1870s whose ruins are visible even today. These wells were dug because so many of the men had left and the women couldn’t venture too far away from home to fetch water.
When Borje, along with Shistavec, Oreshka, Cernelava and other villages of the Zapod Administrative Unit were declared a Bulgarian minority area in Albania three years ago, the villagers had mixed feelings.
“There aren’t many Bulgarian passports here. I personally do not have one because I am Albanian,” Fatos Ollomani said, adding that he has never been in Bulgaria.
However, he tells of how a song in the local Gorani language was passed down from generation to generation about 75 villagers who were killed in the Battle of Plevna.
Novruz Mehmeti, the school headmaster, agrees that Bulgaria plays little role in their lives today.
“We are convinced of our Albanian identity,” he said, adding that even after the announcement, no villager had emigrated to Bulgaria.
“Some 44 families have emigrated to the UK, one to Poland, five to France and 12 to Italy,” Mehmeti said. Another six families had gone to Greece and eight to Germany.
How the locals saved their ancient clock
At the village mosque, an old grandfather clock has kept time for 210 years, becoming one of the symbols of the village, along with a 150-year-old linden tree and a tradition of rich wedding ceremonies.
“A businessman brought the clock here. His name was Ali Bin Tahiri. He owned a sweet shop and purchased the clock for the mosque,” Novruz Mehmeti told BIRN.
In 1967, when Albania was declared the first and only atheist nation in the word, and all places of worship closed, the mosque was transformed to a store. However, the villagers’ passion for the clock spared it. They put it in the local cooperative’s café.
Mehmeti tells of how the authorities in nearby Kukes sent word to have the clock. Unable to refuse the request outright, the villagers demanded a heavy price – some 10,000 leks – some 2,000 dollars back then.
They have the same passion for the protection of the linden tree, which legend says preserves the memory of the felled soldiers at the Battle of Plevna.
They unsuccessfully petitioned the authorities to declare the linden “a monument of nature” but that setback didn’t discourage Mehmeti.
“We decided to fence it and place a tablet stating that the linden is a monument of nature,” he said.
Wedding ceremonies in the wider Gora area are such that whole villages participate in them, both as participants and bystanders.
A centuries-old tradition stipulates that the ceremony must start at the hill above the village with the sound of traditional musical instruments.
The villagers say the start of the hillside tradition dates back youngster who got engaged but died before his wedding day due to tuberculosis and asked to be buried on the hill.
A richly embroidered flag or drape was prepared by the family of the youngster who died before marrying.
“There are some 20 rules on how the wedding flag should be prepared,” Mehmeti says. The staff on which the wedding flag is supported must be preserved intact after the wedding. “It shouldn’t be broken,” he observes.