AP Photos: New borders threaten Balkan nomads

MOUNT VLASIC, Bosnia-Heregovina (AP) — They're some of Europe's last nomads — a hardy group of families who roam from their winter habitat in the Bosnian lowlands to the mountains where they make cheese and shelter in austere cabins.

But their over 2,000-year-old traditions have never been in such peril.

The nomads have dodged wars, minefields and the growth of rural populations, but the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s left them hemmed into one area of Bosnia — unable to cross the borders of hostile new states. Now, the European Union has brought in neighbor Croatia, and the bloc's strict border controls mean it will make it even more difficult for the nomads to move freely.

Ramo Rubanovic, 48, says his son's generation will hopefully be the last of the nomads.

"I would give 100 sheep right now to the person that gave my son Vahid a steady job somewhere," he says. "I don't want him to suffer like this anymore."

Every spring, the 48-year-old leads his sheep from Bosnia's northern plains to Mount Vlasic in the heart of the country to make salty "Vlasic" cheese. It's so prized that his customers drive up the mountain to get it, and make reservations for huge blocks of the cheese for the next year. He says customers tell him they can smell the meadows each time they take a bite.

Rubanovic, his wife and 19 year-old son get up every morning at 4 a.m. to milk 160 sheep before breakfast. Father and son then head out with the sheep to pasture, while Ramo's wife, Zedina, makes the cheese.

In the past, Ramo and his brothers would herd up to 5,000 sheep and spend winters in northern Serbia or Croatia, near the Hungarian border, where there was so much food that the animals would come back to Bosnia in mid-spring fat. Life was good, with no borders.

"We were cheerful and safe. We could sleep anywhere, go everywhere, sing and drink with people everywhere we went," he says. "But then this damned war came."

Bosnia's 1992-95 war was the bloodiest of all the armed conflicts that erupted during the Yugoslav disintegration. Over 140,000 people were killed and millions displaced. Once free borders became impossible to cross. Rubanovic's world shrank.

When autumn comes, Rubanovic will have to grapple with where he can go with his flock. He can head north, but once he hits the river Sava, he'll have stop because the other side is Croatia. If he heads east, he'll hit the border with longtime enemy Serbia.

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