GOMILICA, Serbia (AP) — The tiny hamlet of Gomilica in western Serbia is full of sprawling mansions with dozens of rooms, sumptuous decorations and swimming pools — and most of the year they are empty.
Most of the village's residents live abroad and only stay there during brief vacations. The exodus from the mostly Roma, or Gypsy, village started in the 1960s, when many from the impoverished community headed off toward western Europe in search of better lives.
In the past decades, generations of Gomilica villagers have invested most of their savings in new houses back home, even though they spend little time here. The hope remains that families will return home one day, but big houses also serve to show off wealth to others in a place that remains important to them.
On a cloudy January day, the village is all but deserted.
Towering gates are bolted, windows are shut and blinds are down as strong winds hurls leaves around the gardens.
Large parts of the village have no running water, yet many villas have swimming pools in their yards.
Villa owners' names are displayed in huge letters on some gates. Gold-colored lions, prancing horses, birds, dogs or soccer balls are perched at the entrances and in gardens.
In the pothole-ridden main street, two lovers looking at a sunset are painted on one of the facades. Outside the gate, a lion statue keeps guard of the house.
Petar Djordjevic, 71, has worked in Vienna for 50 years, mostly as a truck driver. He has built a big house in Gomilica, but his family of nearly 40 members from three generations remains in Vienna.
Djordjevic says the village needs running water and proper roads. He says the state should help, as it would encourage younger generations also to come back, and bring the village back to life.
"I've endured a lot (in life), I've endured everything so I could build this," he says, proudly pointing to the peach-colored villa behind him.