No Third Country
Roma: people are fleeing from Kosovo
who were never mentioned before

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  120.000.   

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 figure.  

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 law!  

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." 

Marina Achenbach 

  From »Freitag. Die Ost-West-Wochenzeitung« Berlin , No 42, .10.1999 



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