In Serbia, dozens of villages are quickly dying out. And it's particularly the young women who leave the small towns in hope for a better life in cities or abroad. According to the latest census, about 370 villages in the country have seen no births for the past decade. Generally, Serbia's population is among the oldest in Europe, with 17.4 percent of its 7.2 million people being over 65.
The younger men who remain usually stay on the land owned by their family to take care of the farm and elderly family members. With so few women around, it can be hard for many of them to find a partner. But that demand has created a market for matchmakers, who find these men brides in neighboring Albania. Albania's villages are rapidly depopulating, too, but there, it's mostly men going abroad to find work and the young women staying behind.
Bringing the Serbian men and the Albanian women together isn't an obvious choice—Serbia and Albania aren't on the friendliest of terms. In the conflict over the contested Serbian province of Kosovo, ethnic Albanians living there took up arms to fight the repression of the Serbian regime. Albania borders Kosovo, and the country strongly supported Kosovo's bid for independence from Serbia—which was declared in 2008. Serbia still doesn't recognize that independence.
I met Albanian matchmaker Vera in 2010, after reading about these arranged marriages in depopulated villages in southern Serbia in a local newspaper. I found the issue fascinating, which is why I went south to see if I could document one of those matches. Vera charges about $2,200 for her services, which means many of her clients have to sell some of their land, cows, or equipment to get a chance at love. She introduced me to Milovan, a 44-year-old farmer who was living with his mother and had hired Vera because he didn't want to grow old alone and childless.
Vera brought Milovan to Albania to meet a potential bride, 22-year-old Eva, at her uncle's house. Eva had also brought her mother, grandmother, and brother to the meeting. The group immediately went into negotiations about the potential marriage. Eva's family wanted to be sure of how much land and money he had, while Milovan's only concern was whether she was able to bear his children. At 22, Eva dreaded the idea of having to spend her life as the village spinster, the girl no one had wanted to marry. Leaving her family to marry a man twice her age and go live in a country where she didn't know anyone or speak the language seemed like a better option.
Eva's grandmother had the final word on the negotiations, and she decided on "po"—"yes." Milovan paid $115 to Eva's family and left to buy some golden jewelry and clothes for his fiancée. He returned three weeks later after Eva had received her passport, to take her to her new home in Serbia. He left some more money for her family and paid Vera for her services.
Between October 2010 and February 2011, I was present at several of these negotiations between potential couples. Not all of them were successful enough to lead to marriages. I learned about some peculiar cultural differences between Serbians and Albanians I never knew about—like that Albanian women from these villages aren't allowed to drink or smoke, or that Albanians always drink their coffee with sugar unless someone close to them has died. But really, the most striking thing I learned while making this series was how universal the struggle to find love and start a family really is. That desire can be so much stronger than any cultural difference, or feelings of nationalism.