Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Desperate Albanians Place Faith in Old-Time Healers

Unable to afford hospital treatment, impoverished villagers are turning to local magicians for cures.
By Jeton Musliu

Sinan Hasani, from Terbosh, a village in Macedonia, is happy that he and his brother have both recently become fathers after several years of waiting and thank Basri “Hoxhë” Pecani, a white magician, or healer, for what they call his “gift”.


Infertile couples are not the only ones coming to Pecani, whose title of Hoxhe suggests he is a Muslim cleric. Among poor villagers in Kosovo, Macedonia and southern Serbia, healers are doing a roaring trade as impoverished locals find they cannot afford orthodox medical treatment.


Unlike the communist era, when medicine was free, Kosovars now have to pay for their medical services. In cases of serious illness, most hospitals usually cannot help even when patients have the money, as they lack modern equipment.


Doctors routinely advise sick patients to seek treatment outside the country in Turkey or the West – trips that cost far more than most Kosovars can handle.


Those who come to visit Pecani are not only the sick. Some are Albanians searching for clues about family members who went missing in the conflict with the Serbian military in 1998-99, and who turn to fortune-tellers as their last resort.


Gani, an old man in his nineties, says he turned to Pecani after doing rounds of hospitals in Pristina, Peja, Skopje and Belgrade, in search of a cure for his constant headaches and bouts of paralysis. “Now, after seeing Hoxhe Pecani, I feel much better,” he assured me.


Every Tuesday and Friday people wait in line for hours to get “checked” in front of Pecani’s two-storey house in Bresje, a village four km from Pristina. Pecani says his clients not only come from Kosovo but many surrounding countries too, though the majority are Albanians.


Most people waiting outside the village clinic say they heard about Pecani’s deeds by word of mouth, though he also relies on advertisements. Plugs for his services are aired on Radio Dodona, a local station in Drenas, about 30 km west of Pristina.


But lately, Pecani says his popularity has grown to the point where even Albanians living in western Europe and the United States come to visit him.


Though most of his clients are Albanian, Pecani is reluctant to discuss his own ethnic background. He speaks only poor Albanian.


Pecani bases his ability to cure people on the fact that he once had a near-death experience. When he was young, he says, he went into a coma for several days, which he likened to a clinical death.


“The dead heal the living,” is one of his mottos written on the wall in the small room where he receives his clients.


In this tiny space, which can barely hold three people at a time, various items are on display, ranging from threads of hair to playing cards and lights. A tape recorder constantly plays flattering testimonies from former clients about Pecani and his deeds.


Two loudspeakers in the corridor beam the same messages to the lines of people waiting outside. Though they all call him Hoxhe, the title is not strictly accurate, Pecani admits. He says grateful people bestowed this title on him. But of his reputation as a healer, he is more bullish, “Don’t trust me - ask the people who come here.”


Local healers have a long tradition among Albanians, as among all Balkan peoples. Pecani says he had many Serb patients before NATO’s campaign in 1999 resulted in the flight of most Serbs from Kosovo.


Conservative villagers, few of whom could read, revered healers who were often the only local people who had mastered a degree of literacy. They were considered to be closer to God.


Pecani also claims that he can read and understand texts in Arabic that most Arabic speakers cannot decipher.


Pecani, who says he has been practicing his trade since 1964, insists his services are entirely legal and known to the authorities.


“Before 1999 I worked with permission from Belgrade - now it is with permission from Pristina,” he said, pointing at a framed certificate on the wall published by the Kosovo health ministry and bearing a United Nations stamp. “This is my work license,” he explained.


In Pristina, the health ministry denies having issued any such certificate. Skënder Berisha, a ministry spokesman, says his department would never have released such a document. “No way do we grant licenses for such things,” he said.


But Pecani stands by his story, claiming he has legitimately obtained this license and that he is also one of only four people in the Balkans with the ability to heal people in this way.


Pecani’s certificate is also displayed on the official webpage of the Office for Business Registration, which operates under the auspices of the ministry of trade and industry. There, Peçani’s business is listed as “human health activities”.


When it comes to payment, Pecani says he has no set price, accepting only voluntary donations.


These do not always come in the form of money. Pecani recalls one time when a patient brought him a sheep.


“I am a humanist, I am here to serve the people,” he said. “They give me whatever their heart tells them to give me.”


One Friday, Hata, a 14-year-old Albanian girl from Medvegje, in southern Serbia, and her father Bislim, came all the way from their home town to hand Pecani a carefully wrapped present.


Hata said that she had been “possessed” and Pecani had healed her. She had come back to thank “the living dead man”, as she called him.


“I went to various different doctors but only Hoxhe Pecani found a cure for me,” Hata insisted, beaming as she handed over her gift to one of Pecani’s assistants.


Jeton Musliu is a journalist with the Kosovar Albanian daily Epoka e Re.


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