One of Europe's smallest indigenous minorities is in danger of being completely assimilated. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele visited the Aromanian-speaking Vlachs in the village of Voskopoja in southeastern Albania and filed this report.
Voskopoja, Albania; 7 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For centuries, raising sheep has been the lifeblood of the people who inhabit the mountainous areas that now constitute Albania, northwestern Greece, and Macedonia.
For the Vlachs, the seasonal movement of livestock and herders to different grazing grounds -- known as transhumance -- was a way of life here until half a century ago.
The residents of the mountain village of Voskopoja in southeastern Albania owned many tens of thousands of sheep before World War II. But war and the communist policies of confiscation, collectivization, and nationalization took virtually all of them away. Today, people outnumber sheep by about four-to-one.
Stereo Kita Pleqi is a 73-year-old ethnic Vlach inhabitant of Voskopoja. Until the early 1950s he was a nomad, migrating with his family and their sheep between summer pastures in the surrounding mountains and the winter grazing lands near the sea between Kavaja and Vlora. It took the Pleqi family and their 300 head of sheep 10 to 15 days every spring to reach the mountain pastures and another 10 to 15 days every autumn to descend to the coast.
"We were nomads, shepherds. We had sheep and spent the summers here outside the village and the winters in the fields of Myzeqeja near the sea [between Kavaja and Vlora]. As time passed, some of us began settling down here."
Pleqi says the communists ordered his family to give up their nomadic way of life around 1951 or 1952. As a result, he says, his family "suffered a lot."
Another former Vlach nomad in Voskopoja is 72-year-old Pandi Guri. Although his family built a house in Voskopoja in the late 1920s, they continued to practice transhumance with their 2,000 head of sheep and only settled down under government pressure in 1948.
"They didn't give us any reason. [Albanian communist leader] Enver Hoxha's regime simply took our sheep. So we had no reason to move about any more."
Guri says the communists treated the Vlachs in the village as "second-class citizens," and that "the regime and the non-Vlach inhabitants considered us to be their enemies."
Guri says Voskopoja's Vlachs are still asking about the fate of their livestock and whether they will ever be compensated. But, he says, "No one is offering any answers."
Little is known for certain about the origins of the Vlachs.
The director of Albania's National Library in Tirana, Aurel Plasari, is of Vlach origin. He says theories abound and that the most likely explanation is that the Vlachs are an indigenous Balkan people who were Latinized nearly two millennia ago and subsequently exposed to Romanian influence.
"One of the characteristics that is among the least-researched or studied is that in the enclaves where [Vlachs] are to be found, they maintain a bilingual status. So in Greece they speak Aromanian and Greek; in Albania, Albanian and Aromanian; in Macedonia, Albanian and Macedonian. In my modest research, I have not confirmed the existence of an enclave that speaks only Aromanian."
Plasari says that since Vlachs lack their own state and constitute a minority in the enclaves they inhabit, they have little choice but to be bilingual. This, he suggests, in turn contributes to a natural assimilation of Albania's Vlach minority.
Greece and Romania are engaged in an ongoing contest for the hearts and minds of Albania's Vlachs.
Greece, for example, offers them discounted work visas, while Romania -- over the last 10 years -- has supported the university education in Romania of some 1,000 Albanian citizens, virtually all of them Vlachs.
That's because Romania and Greece, and even Albania, each perceive the Vlachs as their own. Romania does so because of the similarity of their languages. Greeks claim them because Athens considers all members of the Orthodox faith to be Greek -- and all Vlachs are at least nominally Orthodox -- and also because of the presence of large numbers of sedentary Hellenized Vlachs, known as Kutsovlachs, in northern Greece. Albania claims the Vlachs because of the belief among some scholars that Vlachs are the descendants of Latinized Illyrians and thus share common origins with the Albanians.
Many, though not all, Vlachs in neighboring countries have largely assimilated, in some cases losing their language and becoming obscure ethnic subgroups.
The Vlachs' language, Aromanian -- an eastern Romance language related to Romanian -- survived outside influences, including the more than 500-year Ottoman Turkish occupation of the Balkan peninsula. That is, at least in part, because for a long time it was spoken by people who lived in the mountains and who had little contact with the outside world. But some Albanian Vlachs say the similarities with Romanian are overrated and that given their knowledge of Aromanian, they consider Italian far more comprehensible than Romanian.
Residents say Vlachs founded Voskopoja in the mountains to the west of the city of Korca sometime in the 13th century. Over the centuries, more and more of these semi-nomadic shepherds began to settle down. Voskopoja -- thanks to its protected location -- gradually became a center of wool trading and processing, and later of learning.
Voskopoja's traders ventured throughout the Balkan peninsula and as far afield as Salonika, Venice, Trieste, and Vienna in the 17th century to sell their surplus wool. The growing town, in turn, attracted young men -- not only Vlachs, but Albanians, Greeks, and Slavs. Clergy, students, artisans, printers, and builders -- fleeing Ottoman persecution in other parts of the Balkans -- came to work or study in its Greek Orthodox Church-run schools and monasteries.
And while the Greek language played a key role here, making the town, in Greek eyes, an outpost of Hellenism, Aromanian remained the main language of the town. Today, Aromanian and Albanian share equal standing in church life.
Voskopoja's parish priest, Father Thomai, sings the Aromanian-language Orthodox liturgy in Saint Nicholas [Shen Nikol] Church in Voskopoja before offering to sing the same in Albanian.
By the mid-18th century, Voskopoja had a population of nearly 50,000 and was reputed to be one of the largest towns in the Balkans. But in 1769, the Turks ordered the local Albanian bey [ruler] to destroy the town but to leave the churches standing, thus beginning a long decline.
Voskopoja today is being depopulated. According to last April's census, Voskopoja and the surrounding villages have a population of 2,200. Many inhabitants work in lowland cities or in Greece.
Dhori Fallo is a writer and local historian. He says Aromanian has always survived, despite difficult conditions: "There has been no school in Aromanian [in Voskopoja] since 1920. So [the Vlachs] had no other choice than to learn Albanian, even having to pay for private lessons. They were Albanian citizens and were only able to speak Aromanian at home."
Today, scholars believe more Vlachs reside in Albania's cities than in the countryside, in marked contrast to the rest of Albania's population. As a result, they say Aromanian is in greater danger than ever of falling into disuse.
No one has any idea exactly how many Vlachs live in Albania. British scholar Tom Winnifrith estimates their number at 200,000, while other estimates put them at well under 50,000. As a result of a decision by Albania's parliament, this year's census made no reference to ethnic identity, mother tongue, or religion.
There are some officially registered -- but largely inactive -- Vlach associations in Tirana and Vlora. One of them recently split in two as pro-Greek and pro-Romanian factions went their own ways.
Meanwhile, the approximately 200 Vlach households of Voskopoja are left to their own devices to preserve their mother tongue from extinction. Here, retired worker Mina Bane sings a traditional song for his family and friends:
"I was in the garden one day.
A boy passed by, saw me, and said:
'Good day! What is such a nice girl like you doing here? We've never seen such a nice girl.'
And he went away and I, seeing the river, thought of him."