They did not exist, they were never
counted among population percentages. They did not exist - either for world
powers or for the media, which cast a clear light on whole peoples, or
else render them invisible.
The Roma have stayed invisible. For years,
reports on Kosovo and analyses of the struggles between the KLA and the
Serbian troops and militia never mentioned the Roma or the other non-Albanian
and non-Serbian communities. Yet the Roma were at least ten percent of
the population of Kosovo. Even the pictures and stories of the terrible
flow of refugees from Kosovo during the bombing never showed them.
The Roma were there, and they came back together with the Albanians.
However, now that NATO has occupied Kosovo, they are again filling the
camps which had been abandoned and half dismantled. They sit in the green
and white army tents and can watch the children's scribbles on the hard
tent fabric: KLA symbols, names of Albanian heroes, NATO airplanes rising
steeply into the air.
Like in other Balkan countries, the Roma
live in Kosovo in their own towns, or inside or at the ouskirts of villages
and towns among the Albanians and the Serbs. They are not wandering and
scattered families, and they definitely do not fit the German cliche of
Gypsy life. For centuries, they have been living in houses surrounded by
stables and workshops, often expanded thanks to the money earned by their
parents and brothers in Germany. These houses, around 20,000 of them, are
now ruins, whole settlements located between untouched villages.
How many Roma are there - or were there -
in Kosovo? Everybody wants figures: The media, humanitarian organizations,
NATO bodies and the neighbourings countries which are flooded with refugees
from Kosovo. But where can one find the figures? Maybe some day every
person living on this piece of the earth will be accurately counted. The
last time the population was counted in Kosovo was in 1991, when 150,000
people declared that they were of Rom nationality. Many however registered
as Yugoslavs, others - depending on the language they used most frequently
- as Albanians or Serbs. The Roma organizations claim many more, their
estimates range from 350,000 to 500,000. UN organizations put the number
of Roma who have fled to Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia at about
There are several groups of Roma, some Muslim,
some Christian. During these months, every group - whether closer to the
Albanians or to the Serbs - has suffered from the Albanian efforts to make
an ethnically clean Kosovo. The origin and the past of the Roma groups
are lost in legend. The fact that they came from India was unknown or forgotten
for centuries. Next to the Roma live the Ashkali or Hashkari. According
to their tradtion, they came here from Egypt, under Alexander the Great,
and were the first to inhabit Kosovo. In the Ashkali town of Dubrava,
Bajram tells us that his three sons and daughters live in Prishtina,
and nobody there know they are Ashkali. They are Muslims, the have the
same names as the Albanians and bury their dead in the same cemeteries.
They speak Albanian, not Romané. They are hidden among the
Albanian population. Only their darker shade of skin can betray them.
Bajram strokes the fair hair of his seven-year-old
child delicately. "Where should we go?", asks Bajram. "We must die here".
The whole town of 130 families and nearly 1000 souls wants to stay in Kosovo.
Perhaps they have a chance if they lie low for some time without leaving
the village. There is no discussion about the danger of the disappearance
of an ethnic and cultural group. They have run out of of wood, and have
already chopped the floor of an empy house into firewood for coooking.
Winter, a threat to all - Albanians, Serbs and Roma - is approaching. At
long intervals, they get basic food from a humanitarian organization. The
last time was four weeks ago, when the received flour and beans.
Bajram claims that the Ashkali are the second
largest ethnic group in Kosovo, right after the Albanians. That is his
estimate. The Albanians have shown how figures can become arguments, as
moral justification for requests for aid or protection or for promoting
one's own state. Roma and Ashkali are the last group in the
Balkans to be left without a state.
This comes up in every complaint they make:
"There is no way out for the Roma. They behaved
well towards everybody. They never did anything evil. The only thing was,
we had no state of our own. All we wanted was to be left in peace, not
to have to be afraid", says Sabrija Jasari, who fled from Lipljan in Kosovo
to Macedonia. her husband adds: "You see, the Albanians have all been deeply
hurt. I saw their houses being burnt, their children mistreated, I have
nothing against them. However, the wanted the war and they got it. If you
want war, you get what you want. 19 states helped them. Nobody helps us,
except for Macedonia which took us in."
The Roma are now always forced to justify
themselves. In a way, they are squeezed between the two main populations
of Kosovo. In times of peace, there is room enough for all. For the first
time, the Roma had enjoyed full civil and social rights, had had access
to professions and to high school for their children: something they associated
with Yugoslavia and hence also with the Serbs. When they came to work in
Germany, most of their colleagues here were unaware that they were working
with Roma. They were all Yugoslavs, Yugoslavia offered them protection
and respect, it was their state and Tito was a highly respected political
Nationalists on both sides today accuse them
of disloyalty. The accusations amde by the Albanians - who claim they took
part in the massacres committed by Serbian militias - have never taken
a juridically accepted form. There is no evidence, only rumours and suppositions,
useful for putting to rest unesy consciences. Because these accusations
mean a curse on the least guilty, on the only people who never persecuted
any other. The aggressions were nearly all done in the same way, and were
shared in by KLA comandos, gangs and neighbours. They would start with
threats; then masked men would break in with arms in their hands; and they
would end with the hasty flight of the families towards a refugee camp.
Often, they would look back and see their house go up in flames. Often,
those wo came later would tell how the house had been plundered and then
destroyed. What was most frightening for the Roma was the combination of
nationalist ideology, criminal milieu and the envy of ordinary fellow citizens.
A whole quarter of Macedonia's capital, Skopje,
is lived in by Roma. Its name isSuto Orizari, Sutka for short. Many
refugee families were taken in here. The mayor of the district, Nezdet
Mustafa, is one of those Roma who have finished high school. He studied
philosophy and is now studying political science. He has also set up a
Rom TV station in Sutka. He represents a new attitude of the Roma
towards themselves and toward society. "Our history is tragic. The only
good thing is that we are now going to write our own history, for the first
time" he says, and explains: "During a war, both sides try to increase
their forces. Each group tries to draw the Roma over to its side. However,
the Roma have no military ambition. Whom should they fight for? They
have no fatherland, no territory, what should they do with their physical
strength, and what should they fight for? Everybody has his interests in
Kosovo. The Serbs do not want to give the land up, whereas Kosovo wants
to secede. But what about the Roma? We have heard that both sides mobilized
them forcibly, breaking into houses, putting them in jeeps with a weapon
and off to the battlefield... "
One of the UNHCR Camps for Roma refugees
inside Kosovo is in Krusevac, called Krushevci in Albania. Three weeks
ago, a large group of confused Roma left this camp with all their belongings,
in order to reach another country. About 900 of the 1200 inhabitants
of the camp took part in this escape. As soon as they reached the road,
the Kfor tried to deal with them, promising them buses in case it were
possible to reach another country. One third went back. The remaining 450
set out all day long towards Serbia, walking 23 kilometres with the aged,
children and the sick. The march was traumatic: stones were thrown at them,
children insulted them, a man broke into their ranks and struck a Rom with
a shovel, seriously wounding him on the neck. then the UNHCR buses came
to take them to the Serbian frontier. However they were not allowed in,
although they were Yugoslav citizens. They spent the night at an empty
petrol station, and some went back, broken spirited, to their camp.
Their wanderings came to a stop at the Macedonian
frontier post of Blace. A tryly hellish place. A queue of fifteen
to twenty miles of of trucks with goods and building materials for Kosovo
stood in front of the narrow passage. The group broke up among the cars,
the jeeps, individuals travelling on foot, children selling Coca Cola.
The trucks often took up both lanes, and vehicles coming in the opposite
direction were forced to drive beyond the edge of the road, stirring up
sand mixed with the dust from an asbestos and a cement factory along the
road. Everything was covered with light-brown dust, mixed with rotting
and yellowing plastic and paper waste. It looked as if a storm had picked
up and spread an entire waste dump over the countryside.
Amidst this filth and confusion, the 450
Rom wandered for a week. Two days before, the Macedonian government had
put an end to the rules for admitting refugees, who had been allowed in
during the NATO bombing. Nobody else would be allowed into the country.
The UN camps would be closed on October 15th. The UNHCR fed the 450 and
provided them with two toilets. The Rom organizations in Macedonia did
everything they could to open the doors of their country again. And certainly
other governments, NGO's the UN and various ambassadors put pressure. After
eight days, they managed to achieve their goal: the group, which
looked as if it had come directly out of a war, was let into the famous
Camp of Stenkovac.
Those who had not taken part in the escape
to Macedonia and had gone back to Krusevac are still waiting for a solution.
Theodor Fründt of the "Associatin
for Threatened Peoples" visited the camp and was immediately surrounded
by the inhabitants. Deeply depressed expressions, tired, serious, worn
out. They expressed their lack of confidence, they felt betrayed, nobody
had kept the promise to take them to another country. The camp was small,
putrid water in the ditches in front of the tents, smoke came from stovepipes
out of the tents. Every night, the camp was hit by stones.
A tent near the fence was cut up with a sharp knife. The men stayed up
at night on guard, afraid that someone might break in and slaughter them.
The KFOR place was nearby, yet they were completely left to their own devices.
What would happen when winter came? Was nobody
going to help them? Why not them, when the whole world was overwhelming
Kosovo with aid? Was there no third country, ready to take them in? They
received food, but no clothing. A doctor came every other day, but they
did not trust him. The camp was governed by the Italian association ICS
(S standing for Solidarity), on assignment by the UNHCR.
The young Italian camp manager wanted to
get rid of Fründt. He accused the
"Association for Threatened Peoples" of
spreading unrest and demanded that Fründt leave the camp. He called
the nearby Kfor police. Their jeep came quickly over, an American took
Fründt's data down. The Roma watched the scene nervously. A word,
and anger would have boiled over. One of them said, "we want this man to
stay, he is the only one who really cares about us." The American, who
was writing down the data in the manner of the crime squad, without answering
the questions of the suspected delinquent, suddenly grinned and told Fründt:
he was staying without a visa on Yugoslav territory. He was breaking Yugoslav
Mayor Nezdet Mustafa speaks strongly against
international institutions: "The UNHCR Commission on Refugees is
very negligent towards the Roma. Look what is happening in the Stenkovac
refugee camp - it is a concentration camp! The Roma are not allowed to
leave it, journalists have difficulty coming into it. This is because of
specific instructions from UNHCR. I think it is a breach of their rules.
And I believe that the documentation we are preparing will lead to a trial
in court against the UNHCR. We have documents which show that they are
not performing their appointed task properly."
The daughter of the family which fled from
Lipljan, mentioned above, provides a surprising conclusion: "A neighbour
of ours, a Siptar, an Albanian, came all the way here to Skopje and told
us we should come back. But he would not be able to protect us during the
night. He could not guarantee anything. So we said, "We are not coming.
Why are you calling us back, when we are going to get killled? He cried
and went back."
Die Ost-West-Wochenzeitung« Berlin , No 42, .10.1999
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