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

South Serbia Roma Face Bleak Future

Jobless and shunned by both Albanians and Serbs, the Roma of Bujanovac have nothing to look forward to.
By Nikola Lazic

Zeqa Iseni, a Roma man from Bujanovac in south Serbia, slowly sips his coffee in the café of a local bus station, waiting for a bus to Cuprija, 200 kilometres away in central Serbia, where his son, Qania, attends a musical academy.

Iseni is one of few Roma in the town to have completed secondary school, gained a steady job and take home a monthly wage of just over 200 euro, which is an average income in Serbia.

His son may be luckier. When members of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra heard Qania’s virtuoso performance on a violin at a music competition, they insisted that he pursue his musical education and offered to cover part of the expenses.

Despite that boost, Iseni has trouble providing the rest of the money his son needs. The local authority rejected his request for a scholarship to study in Cuprija on the grounds that “there is a music school in Bujanovac”. He does not want to start smuggling, or reselling small articles, which is the main source of income for many Bujanovac Roma.

His wife is unemployed and the couple has two other school-age children to support. They want to provide a normal life for their children, but few Roma people can afford that.

“I have decent wage and good job, but it’s very difficult to make ends meet,” said Zeqa.

Iseni’s story contradicts all the familiar stereotypes about Roma, which hold that they have no worries, are always happy and do not care about the future.

Roma gained the status of a national minority in 2002 in the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but this change brought the Roma in towns like Bujanovac no practical benefits.

The exact number of Roma in the municipality has not been accurately determined, as only few thousand turned out for the last census in 2002.

Politicians from four Roma political parties active in Bujanovac estimate that the real figure for the community hovers between 7,000 and 10,000, including about 1,000 displaced people from Kosovo who arrived in 1999.

Whatever the real number, their low status and poor prospects are indisputable. “The Roma in Bujanovac live without the most basic necessities of life,” said Enver Idic, of the Party of Roma Unity, PRJ, the oldest Roma party in the town. “Discrimination is rife, and even worse, there are no signs things will get better.”

Idic, who is also active at the Centre for Roma Progress, one of four NGOs founded by Roma, says they are partly to blame for their plight. “We should help ourselves, for it is only then that we can expect that from others,” he said.

This March, when the founding assembly of a new Roma party, the United Roma Party, UJP, took place, some said the Bujanovac Roma were finally about to solve their own problems.

But several months on, there are few signs of the new party coming to life. Local observers blame an ongoing power struggle within the new party for the deadlock.

“So-called Roma political leaders are obstructing the work of the new party because of their own interests, though we all agreed we needed an [indigenous] local party,” said Kenan Rasitovic, of the United Nations Development Programme.

“The Roma community is very vulnerable, and their lack of unity only further aggravates the situation.”

Until the 2000 democratic changes in Serbia, the Bujanovac Roma voted en masse for the then ruling Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, led by Slobodan Milosevic.

The local authorities unscrupulously exploited the Roma’s poverty to win votes, giving out free cooking oil, sugar and flour before the poll.

On the eve of the local elections in South Serbia in July 2002, both local Serbs and Albanians competed for Roma votes, although the minority fielded lists of its own.

The Roma candidates got nowhere, however. To gain a seat in the local assembly, which today has 18 Serb and 23 Albanian deputies, a political party or coalition must win 600 votes.

Despite their 3,800 registered voters, the Roma failed to reach this threshold owing to their disunity. Many local Roma families had also left temporarily for Vojvodina, in northern Serbia, for seasonal work.

Ilijaz Kasumi, one of few Roma journalists in the Pcinja district, to which Bujanovac belongs, said the leaders of the older Roma parties had failed to convince people that they could promote their interests.

The local Roma face an extra disadvantage in that both government and NGOs remain preoccupied with the bitter local power struggle between the town’s Serbs and Albanians.

A 2003 report by the International Crisis Group, ICG, backed this up, saying the Roma had been “mostly neglected in many discussions on integration and multiethnic co-existence”.

The ICG report said Roma faced hostility from the growing Albanian population, which looked on them as a “pro-Serb element in their midst”.

It concluded that throughout the region, the Roma “disproportionately suffered at the hands of all the warring parties” in the 1990s, adding that this might reoccur if “violence were to flare up again”.

The dismal economic position of the Bujanovac Roma matches their political disunity.

According to Enver Idic, only 250 to 300 members of the community have steady jobs.

Those fortunate enough to get jobs in local companies or state institutions as a rule get the dirtiest and most difficult jobs, such as street cleaning or working in sewage.

Idic says only seven Roma work in the municipal administration. He himself is a laboratory technician at the local health centre.

“The number of Roma registered with the local national employment office is between 1,000 and 1,500,” he said. “But the true number of jobless Roma is far higher.”

Only 200 of the unemployed Roma have completed secondary school. The rest are qualified only for manual labour. According to Idic, not one local Roma has a university diploma.

Sunita Diljaj, 15, is typical of the younger generation of local Roma in her low-level occupation. She earns a very basic living by cleaning the houses of more affluent families, taking home around 100 euro a month.

Sunita was born in Germany, where her parents spent 13 years as asylum seekers. Germany deported them to Serbia in the autumn of 2003.

Thanks to his savings in Germany, Diljaj’s father was able to buy a small house in Bujanovac. But no one in the five-member family is officially employed.

“My father and two brothers buy old shoes in Belgrade, repair them and resell them at local markets,” she said. “What can we do? You have got to live off something.”

Each year, about 150 Roma enrol in local primary schools, which is obligatory. But only around a tenth of that number continues to secondary school, a handful of whom complete their studies.

The Roma have no opportunity for education in their mother tongue in the town’s Serbian-medium schools and obtain little information in their own language, except for two pirate radio stations and one television broadcaster, which shows only entertainment programmes.

The once-weekly 30-minute show for Roma on the local Bujanovac Radio station certainly does not meet their needs.

Idic said much more had been expected from the government, the international community, NGOs and from the coordinating body, which the Serbian government established to focus on developing ethnically-mixed areas of south Serbia.

“We still live in ghettos and in settlements with no water supply or sewerage,” he said, adding that a project to install a sewage system in the main Roma settlement had been started but never completed.

The authorities deny charges of discrimination, saying they cannot separate Roma needs from those of Serbs and Albanians but must meet the requirements of all ethnic groups in Bujanovac.

But even the official statistics concerning the funds that the government and international organisations have invested in Bujanovac show most of the money went on mainly Serb or Albanian areas.

The displaced Roma who fled Kosovo in 1999, after the Serbian administration collapsed there, are even worse off.

The UN refugee body, UNHCR, says 40,000 to 50,000 displaced Roma live in Serbia. There are no official figures about their exact number in Bujanovac, but Idic says 1,000 to 1,500 Roma from Kosovo are in the town.

Some live in the Salvatore refugee camp, where conditions are wretched. About a hundred families are housed in makeshift shacks and hovels made of nylon and cardboard, sharing one lavatory and three taps.

They say neither the state nor foreign organisations have helped them much. “We can't say if it's worse here in winter when the wind blows from all directions, or in summer, when all sorts of infections loom,” said Bekim, who used to live near Pristina.

Rabit was born in Gnjilane, Kosovo, and lives in a one-room shack of old sheet metal and nylon with his wife and a child, aged three. “They gave us tarpaulin to cover the shack, but we had to sell it to get food,” he said.

His wife said they eat once a day, sharing a loaf of bread and canned meat paste between them. “One should eat three times a day. We also need milk for our child,” she said, tearfully.

Everyone in this settlement is unemployed, apart from some occasional seasonal work.

Enver Idic says the town’s Roma youth suffer most. They have no cultural activities to stimulate them, except for the Cultural Artistic Society Zulficar Bajramovic, but that has no funds.

“Our youth cannot go out at all,” he said. “Café owners, waiters and guests openly tell them they are not welcome.

“The police also treat us with contempt, and the same thing happens in all state institutions and agencies. Here in the 21st century, local people's behaviour is still guided by old prejudices.”

Nikola Lazic is journalist with the weekly Novine Vranjske.