Roma 'Martians' From Kosovo Unwanted Wherever They Go

Tens of thousands of Kosovo's Roma population are fleeing the province to escape the threat of retaliation from embittered returning Albanian refugees - only to find that they are not welcome in Serbia either.

Roma 'Martians' From Kosovo Unwanted Wherever They Go

Tens of thousands of Kosovo's Roma population are fleeing the province to escape the threat of retaliation from embittered returning Albanian refugees - only to find that they are not welcome in Serbia either.

Wednesday, 28 July, 1999

As he stood outside the offices of Belgrade's Roma Society, waiting to pick up a food parcel, Kosovo Roma refugee K.K. heard the news that his mother was dead, murdered, her throat cut and her body tossed down a well.

Ten days earlier he had been forced to leave Kosovo, fearful of Albanian retribution following the Serbian withdrawal from the province. "The Albanians beat me up and attempted to kidnap my daughter," he claimed. "The next day they set my house on fire. I went, but my mother Arifa refused to leave."

Kosovo's Roma population have been blamed, along with the Serbs, for the brutality, robbery, rape and mass murder endured by the province's Albanian community before NATO led KFOR troops entered Kosovo. Though KFOR officials say that the incidence of reprisal attacks is coming down, tens of thousands of Serbs and Roma have fled the province in fear of the violence.

"An acquaintance told me that Albanians had driven through our neighbourhood shouting that we gypsies had to leave because we support (Yugoslav president Slobodan) Milosevic. Then they went inside my mother's house, they slit her throat and threw her body in the well of our neighbour Aisa Kamberi..."

K.K. was racked with guilt. "I had intended to go and bring her here (to Belgrade). Had I have gone to get her, she would still be alive."

Times have rarely been harder for the poor, jobless, homeless Roma. By habit of recent years., they have been forced to seek aid from the authorities, regardless of which authority rules the land they happen to stand on.

But this means they also have to prudently side with the powers-that-be. In Kosovo, that meant the Serbs. When the war came they were called up for the army and found themselves fighting the Albanians in their own province. Others, whether poor or merely criminal, took advantage of the chaos of conflict to rob or do worse.

Now the Albanians are back and the Serb authorities gone. The returnees are finding it hard to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. Neither do they much want to separate collective and individual responsibility for the crimes inflicted on the Kosovars.

The 1991 census reported approximately 49,000 Roma in Kosovo, though other estimates put the true figure as high as 150,000, taking account of irregular birth registration and the high birth rates among the community. According to best guesses, only about 10,000 Roma still remain in Kosovo, many too old or infirm to move. Nevertheless, all appear keen to leave.

As soon as the Serbian army and paramilitary police left Kosovo, most of the Roma started leaving: 7,000 from Prizren, 35,000 from Djakovica, around 13,000 from Pec, an estimated unofficial total of 120,000 from all over Kosovo. They left in a hurry, however they could, by car, of foot or by bus, even though unscrupulous drivers were charging 100 German marks for a seat.

Most have squeezed into existing Roma neighbourhoods in Serbia's towns between 15-20,000 in Belgrade alone. Another 20,000 crossed into Macedonia. Wherever they are they are mainly living rough with their children in parks and under bridges and generally going hungry.

Dz.I. from Pec in Kosovo reported that Serb police had set up a checkpoint at Rudare in southern Serbia, where Roma refugees are being forced to pay 200 to 300 marks or the equivalent in gold jewellery before they are allowed through.

"I did not have any money so I managed to get across through the forest," Dz.I said. "I came to Belgrade and I personally saw 30 Roma coming off the back of a lorry. They said that they had to pay around 200 German marks each to take the illegal trip to Serbia." There are reports that other police are manning posts at the Belgrade city limits and turning Roma refugees back as they arrive.

They feel that they have been abused and abandoned by both sides. "Since we cannot survive in Kosovo because of the Albanians, I ask why the Serbs were pushing us to quarrel and fight against Albanians in the first place?" asked Halil Ibrahim, a Roma from Kosovska Mitrovica.

"We had to be on the side of the SPS (Milosevic's ruling Socialist party). You had no other choice in Kosovo. Serbs had an easier time, though even they had to be a SPS member if they wanted to work." Dragan Stankovic, president of the Roma Society in Belgrade said the discrimination predates the present crisis. "We, the Roma people are wanted by the authorities only during time of war." He says that 6,000 Roma refugees from Kosovo have turned up at his offices in Belgrade since the bombing ended and NATO moved into the province.

He claims that the local state sponsored Red Cross society has failed to help and the government refuses aid. "We are not seen as human to them. We are second class citizens, Martians."

Wealthy Roma working abroad would like to send aid, he claimed, but will not because they cannot guarantee that the Serbs will not get it instead.

The international community, led by the US and British government, insist that no aid will go to Serbia until Milosevic resigns power.

"Why should we Gypsies suffer because of Milosevic?" snapped Stankovic. "He is the President of Serbs and not of Gypsies."

Between two and three hundred Roma refugees converge outside the Roma Society offices in Belgrade each day. Queues for aid start at five in the morning, waiting for food parcels provided by the Belgrade NGOs Bread and Life and Women Centre. There are often fights and angry words in Romany, Serb and Albanian, as Roma from Serbia argue with Roma from Kosovo.

Meanwhile state propagandists say all is well. "The Belgrade authorities are telling Roma - and many Serbs - that the situation in Kosovo is 'completely safe' and they should go home," said Ibrahim.

He said the authorities in Nis, an industrial town in Southern Serbia, even organised what he wryly called a 'virtual' return of Roma to Kosovo. "They loaded two buses full of people," he said, "and state television cameras filmed them 'leaving' (for Kosovo). Then the bus drove once around Nis before coming back, unloading the passengers and telling them to go away."

Serbia is feeling the effect of economic collapse, war and lingering sanctions. It has no resources to feed its own citizens, and sees the Roma as just another burden.

There is not enough to go around for us who live here," said Jovica Jovanovic, a Roma from Belgrade. "Even the Serbs are impoverished. They do not throw bread as they used to. Containers are empty.

"How are we going to live?" she asked. "'We do not need you, Roma from Kosovo' (the Serbs say). You voted for Milosevic, so go to Dedinje'."

Newly arrived Roma from Kosovo have to ask where Dedinje is. After a while they discover that it is the exclusive Belgrade neighbourhood where Slobodan Milosevic and the rest of the elite lives.

They will not be welcome there.

Vesna Stojanovic is a human rights activist and expert on the situation of the Roma in Serbia.

Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo
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