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Depopulation turns Serbia’s villages into ghost towns

Death notices are seen on the door and the wall of a closed shop in the village of Papratna, near the southeastern town of Knjazevac, Serbia, Aug. 14, 2017. (Photo: Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Depopulation turns Serbia's villages into ghost towns

Repusnica was once a bustling village on the slopes of Mount Stara Planina in Serbia. Now its bars lie empty, its houses stand shuttered and nobody walks its streets.

Authorities declared the village near the border with Bulgaria closed in 1998 due to depopulation caused by mechanization of the economy, the closure of state factories and an exodus from Serbia linked to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

In many nearby villages, the population has dwindled, and sometimes just an elderly couple or a single person is left. Schools, clinics, veterinary stations and shops are closed. Visitors are rare. Roads are peppered with potholes.

“Some people left, moved away … to seek better living standards. The village was neglected and ignored, especially when it came to infrastructure,” said Rade Bogdanovic, a retired veterinarian in Kalna, part of the Knjazevac municipality, which also includes Repusnica.

“Only the elderly stayed behind, the parents of those who left, and over time they grew older and died,” he said as he stumbled across rubble to reach his dilapidated former office. He said Kalna’s population had shrunk from 4,000 to 1,000.

Between 2002 and 2011, Serbia lost more than 377,000 people, or 5 percent of its population of around 7 million, according to the census. Numbers have fallen in 86 percent of the country’s 4,600 villages, according to the Serbian Academy of Science. A similar situation exists in some other countries in the Balkans and southeastern Europe.

In the past 50 years, the population of the eastern Serbian municipality of Knjazevac has fallen by half, to 30,000. “We now have a population in line with what we had after World War I,” said Marija Jelenkovic, a municipal official.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, around a million people left to seek jobs in the West. An estimated 700,000 people left Serbia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The outflow continued after the fall of President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. A transition to a market economy saw many state factories close, and a trend toward smaller families has led to a rise in the average age to 42, according to the 2011 census, up from 40 in 2002.

The Serbian government has sought to tackle the problem by improving infrastructure and offering incentives to younger people to stay in villages. The effort has yet to yield results.

In 2015, a human rights official appointed by Parliament said the country should ask migrants flooding through the Balkans from the Middle East to settle in empty villages, but the idea was abandoned. (Reuters)

Photography by Marko Djurica/Reuters

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