Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kosovo's Fogotten Refugees

Macedonia struggles to cope with thousands of Kosovo Roma refugees driven from their homes by Albanian extremists
By Rose George

Through the barbed wire fence, a commotion was going on in Camp Shuto Orizari.


The camp, funded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, and run by the Macedonian Red Cross, is home to 1,500 Roma - or Gypsy - refugees from nearby Kosovo, driven from their homes by ethnic Albanians over the last 10 months.


The commotion was a protest strike, sparked by the refugees' bitterness at what they see as the international community' disinterest in their plight.


On November 15, four Ashkalis - Albanian-speaking, highly integrated Roma - were shot dead when they returned to their village in Kosovo to rebuild their burned houses.


In another incident, a 13 year-old boy was burned alive when he went back to Orahovac in southern Kosovo to check out his house.


Since the repatriation of Kosovo Albanian refugees, the vast majority of the province's 150,000 Roma have been chased or burned out of their homes. Only 10,000 to 30,000 remain, living in ethnic enclaves under constant fear of attack. In Pristina, one American journalist found more than 30 families who hadn't ventured outside their homes in seven months.


Macedonia, the poorest of the former Yugoslav republics, has reluctantly agreed to shelter the uprooted Roma.


Shutka, on the outskirts of the Macedonian capital Skopje, is the world's only self-governing Roma municipality. Families in the area are looking after some 4,000 Kosovo Roma refugees. About 1,500 others live in the Shuto Orizari camp.


Its hardly an ideal situation. Shutka, a suburb which grew out of the city's rubbish tip, is racked by 80 per cent unemployment. It has inadequate amenities for its own residents, nevermind refugees. The camp is only 100 meters from the tip, which covers several nearby hillsides.


Families who have offered shelter to refugees are supposed to receive a 200 German mark payment each month from the European Union. The last payment was made in December 1999.


UNHCR sources say Shutka's Roma mayor offered to accommodate the camp in the hope of attracting international organisations to his municipality.


But since NATO troops took control of Kosovo last year, the number of international organisations in Skopje has dropped dramatically from 600 to 6. "They've all gone to Pristina or Belgrade," said Susanna Tuneva-Paunovska of the Macedonian Red Cross. "We're doing the best we can on our budget, but it's not enough. Still, compared to some camps in Africa, Shutka is the Holiday Inn."


Holiday Inn or not, Shutka's refugees are nervous. The camp is too close to the Kosovo border for comfort, and the recent violence in southern Serbia between Albanian separatists and Serbian police, which left four Serbian officers dead, has done nothing to calm nerves.


The village of Dosevac, where the four Ashkali men were killed, is in the heart of former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, territory. Though the KLA has splintered since the NATO-led Kosovo Force, K-For, arrived in the province, its leader Hashim Thaci has managed to transform himself into a high-profile politician, and the KLA's legacy still makes any thought of returning home impossible for the Roma.


Albanians loudly accuse the Roma of having collaborated with Serbian forces in atrocities. Some Serb-speaking Roma did join the Yugoslav army, and some were undoubtedly involved in crimes against the Albanian community, but this only partly explains the current level of hostility.


Before the war, most of Kosovo's Roma co-existed peacefully with Albanians. They lived in mixed residential areas and sent their children to Albanian schools. In Camp Shuto Orizari, 80 per cent of the refugees don't speak Romany. "Until I came here," said one man, "I didn't even know I was Roma."


In one of the camp barracks, a group of men sit down in front of a television and video cassette player. The video shows burning houses and leaky boats crammed with refugees trying to cross to Italy. "My sister and four chilren drowned in one of those boats," said one man.


Another moves salt and pepper pots around on the floor to illustrate geopoliticial strategy. "K-For came for the territory," he said, "not for the people of Kosovo. The Albanians want to create a greater Albania, without us. But we were born in Kosovo. We're not interested in politics, we just want to go home."


The international community's lack of interest in the refugees' plight has intensified their bitterness. "Last year," said Hisen Gashnrani, "United Nations High Commissioner Sadako Ogata came here and said returning us to Kosovo was problem number one. Since then? Nothing!"


Criticism of K-For is particularly vitriolic. "Albanians are exploiting K-For," said one man. "There was one incident when an Albanian went to a Roma house with a K-For sergeant. The soldier pointed his rifle at the house, and the Albanian pointed at stuff saying 'this is mine, and this, and this,' piled it into suitcases and took it away. But it wasn't true - the house belonged to a Roma family. The next day, it was burned to the ground."


With no work permits, and little opportunity to leave the camp, there's plenty of time for Roma to reflect on the contrasts between their situation and the generosity handed out to Kosovo Albanian refugees last year.


UNHCR sources admit the chance of third countries admitting Roma refugees is zero. And though Macedonia has recently renewed the refugees' temporary residence permits until March 2001, there is no suggestion of permanent status. Macedonian law doesn't have any provisions for official asylum status, leaving Shutka's new residents in a precarious legal position.


At the same time, the few NGOs left on the ground hold out little hope the situation in Kosovo will improve enough to allow the refugees to return home. UNHCR, which provides 'go-and-see' visits under NATO escort for refugees wishing to see what has happened to their possessions, doesn't expect people to go back in the foreseeable future. So far only 80 refugees have returned.


Tuneva-Paunovska is blunt, "They won't go home. They're here for good."


She has little time for their complaints about inadequate food rations and the lack of Macedonian language classes for Albanian and Serb-speaking children. "Refugees are always dissatisfied," she said.


But, for the most forgotten victims of the Kosovo conflict there is plenty to feel dissatisfied about.


"I asked one NATO major last year why they weren't helping the Roma," said one of the refugees in his camp barracks. "He said, 'I'm sorry, but you Roma aren't in our programme.'"


Rose George is a regular IWPR contributor