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Yugoslavia: Albanians Vent Their Anger On Roma

For 600 years, the Yugoslav town of Kosovo Polje has stood for martyrdom and defeat. It was here in 1389 that the Turks vanquished the Serbs, launching centuries of Ottoman domination. And it was here in 1987 that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic used that bitter historical memory to launch his career as a nationalist politician. As our correspondent in Kosovo reports, Kosovo Polje is once more a place of national tragedy. It is not the tragedy of the Serbs or the Albanians, however, but of the Roma (Gypsies), accused by ethnic Albanians of collaboration with the Serbs.

Kosovo Polje, Yugoslavia; 20 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When ethnic Albanians began returning last month after Serbian troops were forced to withdraw from the province, they found scenes of devastation. In many places, charred rubble and looted shops were all that remained of their homes and workplaces -- the handiwork of Serbian forces. But many ethnic Albanians say that among those who looted were the Roma.

In numerous incidents, returning Kosovar Albanians have accused their Romany neighbors of having collaborated with Serbs. Cases of Roma stealing property in war-ravaged towns have, indeed, been documented by KFOR forces. Anger in the Albanian community mounted, and retribution was swift and indiscriminate.

Mirroring the actions of the Serbs against them, ethnic Albanians began to set entire Romany neighborhoods on fire. Terrified Romany families fled for their lives. Several thousand of them ended up on the grounds of an elementary school in the village of Kosovo Polje. For the past month, the school has been turned into a makeshift city: 2,500 Roma crammed into small outdoor shelters held together by plastic sheeting and cardboard. There are no showers and only two public toilets.

Ibrahim is the leader of the Roma in the camp. He says that, at first, everyone had to scrounge for food and fend for themselves. Then, with the help of KFOR soldiers, international charities were brought in to take care of basic food and medical needs.

"In the beginning, we didn't have any kind of help from the UN and UNHCR. So we went to KFOR forces and asked them, first of all, for security. The KFOR forces acted as intermediaries and brought us some help from humanitarian organizations. Up to now, we've had assistance from OXFAM for water; Medicins du Monde has given us medicine; and Aid Children Direct has been providing food."

Ibrahim admits there were a few cases of looting by Roma, who numbered around 40,000 out of Kosovo's prewar population of 2 million. But Ibrahim says his people are being blamed for crimes they did not commit. He says Roma -- for the most part -- did not take sides in the conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. Now, he says, they are simply easy targets for the Kosovar Albanians:

"It is not a question of thievery or stolen things. On the part of my people, I know it is not true that we participated in such things. There were some minor cases. But Albanians know very well who did most of it. It was done by the Serb paramilitaries who are now in Serbia. And since they (Albanians) cannot go to Serbia, they have taken out their revenge on us."

Fifty-year-old H.G. -- he is too frightened to give his full name -- lies wrapped in a filthy blanket in a small tent with his wife and seven children. H.G. used to work in the sanitation department of the provincial capital, Pristina, as a water truck driver. He says he continued to work during the NATO bombing campaign, helping to clear rubble and perform other tasks. But H.G. says that when Serbian soldiers asked him to collect and bury the bodies of dead Kosovar Albanians, he refused and was dismissed. Soon, the bombs stopped falling and Pristina's ethnic Albanians began returning home.

That was when H.G. says his nightmare began. He says five Albanian men armed with wooden clubs showed up at his house:

"They beat me so badly that I fell down and lost consciousness. They beat me so badly you can still see the scars on my head. They almost killed me. The only thing they didn't do was to shoot me with a pistol."

H.G. says he was taken away by his attackers to another location, where he was also beaten. When they released him, H.G. says he fled to his aunt's house, where his family had taken refuge. Within a couple of days, however, he says more men with clubs and kerosene containers arrived. They gave H.G. and his family 10 minutes to flee. Eventually, he says, they made it to the school at Kosovo Polje.

Sitting by a neighboring tent, 19-year-old A.K. tells an equally harrowing tale. He says it was June 21 when he walked from his house to see his uncle in another part of Pristina. He says that when he arrived at his uncle's street, his Albanian neighbors told him that someone wanted to have a word with him. He said they called over more neighbors, who started yelling that they were going to kill him.

A.K. says he tried to run away but that a carload of men caught up with him. He says they kidnapped him and drove him to a makeshift interrogation cell. There, A.K. says that men dressed in the black uniform of the Kosovo Liberation Army showed him photos of Roma and asked him to identify those who had collaborated with the Serbs. A.K. says he recognized no one and refused to make any accusations. After three days of beatings and threats of torture, he says he was released.

A.K. returned home but he says that soon after, the men with the kerosene jugs arrived and gave him 15 minutes to leave or be burned alive. A.K. says he no longer sees a future for himself and his nine-member family in Kosovo. His wife is pregnant. He wants to start a new life elsewhere -- anywhere but here.

"I appeal to the world for help. Please get us out of here. We have no chance to live here or go back to our houses. If no one helps us, then each of us will kill his own family and then the world will be rid of us."

Three kilometers away, on the grounds of an abandoned Yugoslav Army base, British forces of the 518th Pioneer Squad have been building a refugee camp for the Roma now staying at the school. Captain Mike Tickner notes that in two days his men have put up 190 tents and installed a water purification system. Showers and latrines will be in place by the end of the week.

As for the UN's refugee agency, which commissioned the camp, its strategy is less clear. The barracks sit near a coal-fired power plant. Fine gray ash coats the surrounding area. But UNHCR field officer Paula Ghedini says the camp is near a fire station and a regiment of KFOR troops to provide security. What the Roma here will do when winter comes is unclear. Nor is it clear what will happen to Kosovo's 30,000 other Roma who have sought refugee at similar sites throughout the province. Ghedini:

"This is designed as a purely temporary emergency location. And that's how we're billing it. We do not intend for this population to stay through the winter. There may be a residual case load for which we will have to look into different options. But this is just an emergency life-saving measure."

In the wrecked village nearby, a local ethnic Albanian is told of the Romany camp and spits on the ground. He says the destruction of the village was caused by the Roma. "We will never let them return," he says. He says they must go and leave this land forever.