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Yugoslavia: Kosovo's Roma Remain Isolated

  • Alexandra Poolos

Ethnic violence continues to undermine stability in Kosovo. Albanians and non-Albanians alike are being targeted in attacks, which range from harassment to murder. For the province's minorities, like the Serbs, Roma and Muslim Slavs, the situation is often desperate. Gathered in KFOR-protected enclaves, they worry they will never have a place in Kosovo. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos visited a Roma camp in northern Kosovo to speak with residents.

Obilic, Kosovo; 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In Obilic, a small town some 20 km north of Pristina, 850 Roma (Gypsies) have built a makeshift camp where they will stay the winter. Living ten or twelve to a tent, the Roma of Obilic spend their days cooking, sleeping, or roaming aimlessly through the rows of muddy tents. They say they are trapped in this small field set at the end of a long, tree-lined road. No one ever leaves and few visitors arrive. The Roma of Obilic are a disparate group. Before the war they lived in different villages of Kosovo as Albanian or Serbian Roma. But now even those Roma who called themselves Ashkalija and spoke Albanian say they face intimidation and violence from ethnic Albanians. They say their own sense of nationality or their actions during the war matter not at all. They are judged now, they say, by the color of their skin alone.

Protected by Norwegian KFOR troops and provided humanitarian assistance by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Roma say they have no choice but to remain in Obilic. Most have lived there for five months.

Sixty-year-old Nagije Begeshi says that when ethnic Albanians returned to Kosovo and saw their homes destroyed, they in turn wanted to punish someone.

"Where can we go now," she asks. Begeshi has lost the use of her legs since arriving in the camp. She says the cold and poor nutrition have worsened wounds she received during the war.

Emine Adici is 12 years old and a leader among many of the Roma children in Obilic. She speaks Albanian, Serbian, English and French but say she doesn't know Romany because before the war she considered herself Albanian, not Rom. Adici says she went to school with other Albanian children and never felt ostracized for her ethnicity. "I never really thought about being Roma at all," she says. "Now it's all I know. The Albanians won't let me forget."

"Well, when the police came into Kosovo and the Albanians all left and escaped we didn't join the Albanians in leaving Kosovo. So when the Albanians came back they said 'You Gypsies, you stole, you worked with the Serbs.'"

A smart girl, with quick dark eyes, Adici says she would like to continue with her studies so that one days she can go to school outside Kosovo. But for now there is no education in her camp.

Some of Kosovo's Roma admit they did collaborate with Serbs. They say they often had no choice and were forced to do the "dirty work" for Serb paramilitaries -- to bury the bodies of Albanians, to dig trenches for the military and to pillage and destroy ethnic Albanian property. In one interview with the Pristina-based Humanitarian Law Center, an unnamed Pristina Rom describes how he and nine others were forced by Serb police to bury the bodies of massacred Kosovar Albanians. He said there were some 40 bodies, all men aged between 25 to 50 years old. Some of the bodies were still warm. He said the bodies were buried one by one in the village's Muslim graveyard.

Following the signing of the peace settlement between NATO and Belgrade, the Roma and members of other minority groups who were involved in more violent acts left Kosovo with retreating Serb forces.

Most of the minorities who remained after the arrival of KFOR troops last June have since left the province in large numbers.

Estimates on the number of non-Albanians now living in Kosovo vary. But it is believed that well under half of the some 200,000 Serbs who lived in the province at the start of this year remain. Among the Roma, only some 6,000 out of some 30,000 remain.

And their numbers continue to dwindle. The Serbs, Turks, Slavic Muslims, and Croats -- all these groups contend with harassment and violence from ethnic Albanians. They are isolated in their small ethnic enclaves, unable to access education, health care or work. Most depend on humanitarian aid for food and shelter. Almost all depend on the protection of KFOR troops.

Peter Kessler, spokesman for the Kosovo office of the UNHCR, says ethnic violence has recently increased in the province after a period of decline. He attributes the attacks on minorities not only to revenge, but also to criminals who he says are targeting those who are most vulnerable. Kessler, who spoke with RFE/RL late last week by telephone from Pristina, says more needs to be done by international officials to create a secure environment for minorities:

"We're not planning to evacuate any Roma out of Kosovo. We do think that in many areas further confidence building measures, further efforts by KFOR and UNMIK police to patrol regions to provide static security points, check points, in other areas curfews, that can help bring the situation under control. We're also asking and expecting the authorities on the ground here to do a better job to control the security situation. Because it's of course only detrimental to Kosovo's future if the violence continues. And a lot more can be done in that area. But right now of course the Roma are in a very, very precarious situation, as is any minority in Kosovo in a majority [Albanian] area."

Ferat Gukatoni, a 20-year-old Rom, believes the Roma will never be able to return to their homes. He says Albanians want the Roma out of Kosovo entirely.

Gukatoni is pessimistic that he will ever leave the muddy tents of Obilic for his village in southern Kosovo. He says he would rather leave the province entirely and try to build a new life for himself and his family outside of Kosovo, perhaps in Germany or Great Britain.

Gukatoni doesn't believe KFOR or UN organizations will be able to deter ethnic Albanians from attacking the Roma if they dare to leave their makeshift camp. "For now," he says, "we are stuck here. There is nowhere else to go."

There was a time, not so long ago, when Rom musicians played at every Albanian wedding in Kosovo. The Roma were considered an integral part of society, their presence accepted in schools, businesses and social gatherings.

There are high hopes that Kosovo will one day be multi-ethnic, but the Roma of Obilic do not believe they will return to their former villages. They say that for now, the Kosovar traditions of the past are dead, that Rom musicians will play only for themselves in KFOR protected camps.