Delegates to this week's International Romani Union Congress in Prague discussed the plight of the Roma in Kosovo, where many still live as outcasts, with limited access to health care, education, or employment. RFE/RL's Alexandra Poolos attended the discussions.
Prague, 27 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- More than a year after NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia succeeded in forcing Serbian troops out of Kosovo, the province's dwindling Romany population still faces a daily struggle to survive. They say they are the new pariahs of Kosovo, trapped between ethnic hatreds and with nowhere to go.
Stephan Mueller is an adviser on minority affairs for the Pristina office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. At this week's International Romany Union Congress (IRU) in Prague, Mueller said that less than one-fifth of Kosovo's pre-war Romany population remains in the province. He said most left to save their own lives after being subjected collectively to revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians, who in turn allege the Roma collaborated with the Serbs in rape and murder. Aside from the threats and physical violence, thousands of the Roma have had their homes burned and been forced out of their villages.
Mueller says security is not the Roma's only problem. Isolated in small ethnic enclaves, the Roma have little to no access to education or health care. Most do not have jobs and depend on humanitarian aid for food and shelter. Almost all live under the protection of international peacekeeping troops.
"In general, I can say the Roma in Kosovo suffer from a lack of security. There's a problem of limited access to health facilities if Roma need to go to hospital. There's problem of children going to school, because the Albanian teachers don't want to teach the Roma children."
Mueller says the situation has improved in some areas of Kosovo -- especially in the southwestern town of Prizren, where Roma can move about freely. But he says even the relatively liberated Roma of Prizren could never leave the town and travel throughout Kosovo.
He says the international community and Albanian leaders are now focusing more of their efforts on re-integrating the Roma into Kosovar society. To do this, he says the United Nations civil administration in Kosovo is appointing Roma representatives to multiethnic councils for local municipalities. Late last month, the UN launched what it called a "platform for action" on the Romany situation, holding talks between ethnic Albanian and Romany leaders.
But old prejudices die hard. Although the Roma were seen as an integral part of Kosovar society before the war, the perception that they collaborated with Serbian police and paramilitaries has stigmatized the entire minority.
In truth, some of Kosovo's Roma admit they did collaborate with Serbs. They say they often had no choice and were forced to do what they call the "dirty work" -- burying the bodies of Albanians and digging trenches for the Serbian military. Some did pillage and destroy ethnic Albanian homes. Others who were involved in more violent acts left Kosovo with retreating Serbian forces immediately after the NATO bombing ended.
Close to 100,000 Roma left Kosovo in fear of reprisal attacks. Many tried to settle in Serbia, but most quickly discovered that they weren't wanted there either.
Dejan Markovic is a leader of Yugoslavia's Union of Romany students and a member of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. Markovic came to the IRU congress in Prague to inform other delegates of the difficulties faced by Roma from Kosovo. He says that some 70,000 Roma refugees are living in Serbia and Montenegro.
Markovic says the Kosovo Roma who fled to Serbia receive practically no humanitarian assistance. He says the Roma are not recognized by the Yugoslav authorities as refugees, and are not even given camps to live in. Instead, he says, they live on the outskirts of towns in their own makeshift camps without water or electricity.
"It is not that we are threatened by a humanitarian catastrophe, we already have a humanitarian catastrophe -- I mean of course, the Roma refugees from Kosovo. Before I came here, I visited a settlement in Mladenovac and another settlement in a district of Belgrade. They told me there that the last humanitarian package they got was in April -- food supplies and hygienic products. All this was distributed by the Red Cross."
Markovic says the Roma in Serbia will most likely continue to live in sub-standard conditions because no one is putting any pressure on the Yugoslav authorities to give the refugees decent health care or education.
The conditions for other Kosovar Roma living in Macedonia, Montenegro, and western Europe are slightly better than those in Serbia. But they are hardly ideal, and most of the exiled Roma are simply waiting for their chance to return to Kosovo.
OSCE adviser Mueller says that prospect is still far off. He says that while returning the refugees to Kosovo is the OSCE's objective, the security situation in the province is too difficult at present to return large groups of Roma.