Unprotected: attacks continue against Kosovo?s Romani minorities

03 October 2000

Emily Shaw1

I have been engaged as a local monitor in Kosovo for the ERRC as part of a joint project with the US-based non-governmental organisation American Friends Service Committee. The following is my assessment after the first two weeks, which included research in Mitrovica, Priština/Prishtinë, and Uroševac/Ferizaj.

Overall, while the massive wave of systematic violence against Roma, Ashkalija, and Egyptians which characterised the summer of 1999 has somewhat slackened, Roma, Ashkalija, and Egyptians (hereinafter referred to collectively as "Romani minorities") continue to be targets of arson, harassment, and killings. Further, the patterns these attacks follow suggest that perpetrators are trying to force remaining Romani minority communities into leaving their homes. Suspects are rarely arrested in connection with these crimes, a state of affairs which is attributable both to fear of reporting due to an inability to protect witness anonymity and insufficient police capacity. Romani minorities also do not have access to the sub-legal security structures that sometimes protect ethnic Albanians from attack. The lack of consequences for crimes against Romani minorities only encourages the perpetrators and often leads to a drawn-out series of assaults against the residents of a single neighbourhood.

Though there have been several reports of successful refugee-initiated, small scale-returns of Romani minority members from abroad, the picture is not so rosy for other groups, including Romani minorities internally displaced within Kosovo and many of the Romani minorities who have stayed in their original homes. Recent incidents in Uroševac/Ferizaj and Lipljan/Lipjan municipalities demonstrate that Romani minorities are still very much being singled out for attack.

I visited the town of Uroševac/Ferizaj, which, according to a recent study by the UNHCR, was home to approximately 5,560 Roma and Ashkalija living in four communities before the war. Of that number, approximately 4,200 remained at the beginning of September 2000. On September 2, however, two houses were burned down in the largest of these neighbourhoods, Halit Ibishi, which is mixed Albanian, Ashkali, and Romani. I spoke to an Ashkali staff person of an international organisation in Uroševac/Ferizaj who investigated the fires.

The staff person, M.B., told me that one of these houses was owned by an Ashkali family, the other by Roma. The Romani house was owned by two brothers, one of whom was married with three children and lived on one side of the house. The other brother, who was known to be mentally ill, was single and lived on the other side. The married brother had gone to Macedonia with his family to receive medical treatment. The remaining brother stayed in the house by himself. On the morning of September 2, he had gone to the market and left the house empty. When he returned, the house had been burned. On the property was another "room" - a shed in the front yard - and an international organisation, responding to the fire, suggested to the man that they fix it up in order for him to have somewhere to live. When the organisation's representatives returned, the man had left and the place had been entirely looted - even the roof of the shed had been taken. Neighbours said that the man had left the country.

The second case, which occurred on the same date, involved a house owned by an Ashkali family which lives out of the country. Relatives of theirs, a family of five, were living in the house. This family had left for the evening to visit relatives in a village; when they came back the next day, they found that their house had been burnt. They have stayed in the neighbourhood. While they had expressed interest when UNHCR proposed, soon after the event, that their house be repaired for the winter, a UNHCR representative later told me that their house was entirely looted after they moved out, to the extent that even the wooden window frames were taken. The family subsequently changed its mind about repairing the house and as of the date of this writing - September 24, 2000 - was trying to leave the municipality.

In both cases, neighbours told M.B. that they hadn't seen anything and didn't know who had set the fire. M.B. suspects a group of Albanian men who spend time at a neighbourhood kiosk, repeating allegations that this group of men has shot into people's houses and is rumoured to have committed other arson attacks. The group of men have apparently been arrested once, held for several days, and then released. M.B. also says that no one in the neighbourhood would dare report them if they had heard anything. M.B. believes that when UNMIK [United Nations Mission in Kosovo, which acts as Kosovo's civil administration] police responded to the fire, the neighbours probably told them they saw nothing and gave no additional information about who they might have suspected.

M.B. believes that neighbours would be scared to relate their suspicions about the group of men to the police, as the information would have to be relayed through the police officer's Albanian interpreter. If the interpreter happened to be a friend of this group and revealed who had informed on them, this informant would be killed. While M.B. has heard that this group of men also threatens Albanian families, none of their houses have yet been burnt.

I also spoke with M.B.'s supervisor about the incidents and the supervisor revealed a further event of concern. The supervisor reports that M.B. and another Ashkali employee of a different international organisation were canvassing the Halit Ibishi neighbourhood soon after the house burnings, inquiring whether Ashkali and Romani families planned to send their children to school. An Albanian man reportedly approached the two and asked them what they were doing. When they told him, he reportedly said, "You international organisations are only interested in Roma and Ashkalija, you don't care about us (Albanians). We burn down your houses every month, or every week. We need to burn down your houses every day until every single one of you leaves." The workers left the neighbourhood immediately and told the supervisor about what had happened. The supervisor wanted M.B. to report the incident immediately to UNMIK - particularly as this man's comments revealed that he probably had more information about who had committed the arsons - but M.B. refused, being too frightened to do so.

According to the UNHCR clerk who conducted the aforementioned population study, over 250 Roma left town following the house burning. The remaining Romani community is reportedly very anxious and has been unwilling to put forward anyone as a community leader to interact with international organisations, unlike the other Romani minority communities in the area.

Mali Alas village, in Lipljan/Lipjan municipality, has also witnessed a series of attacks against Romani minorities. On August 17, three members of an Ashkali family were killed and one wounded when unknown persons placed a booby-trapped mortar round in their backyard. KFOR undertook an investigation but no suspects have yet been reported. In the same village, an Ashkali man was wounded on September 14 by the detonation of a booby-trapped bomb tied to his fence. A Romani man in Lipljan/Lipjan also found a booby-trapped grenade on his gate on September 6, but KFOR was able to defuse it before it exploded. According to the UNMIK Civilian Police Daily Situation Reports, the house of a Romani minority family in Stimlje village of Lipljan/Lipjan municipality was damaged by an explosion on August 20; there were no injuries.

According to UNHCR, Mali Alas has been targeted for a return project by an international NGO which hoped to assist the return of a number of Ashkalija displaced from Mali Alas who were still living in the Lipljan/Lipjan area. A UNHCR representative told me that she suspects that the attacks were committed with the intention of halting the return process. This set of attacks is of extreme concern, both because of their severity and because of the potential connection to a return project. Other NGOs are undertaking similar small-scale return projects across Kosovo and a strategy must be put in place for all of them in order to prevent further loss of life.

Also of particular concern is the attitude encountered a number of times during our investigations that co-operating fully with UNMIK police is too dangerous to risk. Particularly for Ashkalija I spoke to, it was thought to be far preferable to go to the TMK [the "Kosovo Protection Corps" - the Kosovar emergency-response organisation which is officially under UNMIK and KFOR supervision] than to contact "the internationals". In Mitrovica, one man in the Ashkali community was beaten coming home from work on September 8 by a group of four Albanian men who he thought were under twenty years of age. He was hit in the face and kidneys, he said, and three days later still had dark bruises on his face.

He told me that the attack was completely unprovoked and that he had known one of his attackers, a man who had always been friendly before. He was confused about why it had happened, he said, and was sure that it had been a mistake. When asked if he had gone to the police, he said no, that would just make matters worse: "I'm scared that the police will do something to that guy, and that this will cause more trouble." He had instead sent a friend to TMK to ask that something be done about it. The friend reported that TMK said they'd take care of it and that it would not happen again.

In reference to this incident, the leader of this community told me that they were "interested in making a strong connection between the Ashkali and Albanian communities, not with the UN and KFOR." The apparent importance of TMK in resolving police matters is of serious concern, for several reasons. First, according to UNMIK regulation No.1999/8, TMK is explicitly forbidden from undertaking policing activities: "The Kosovo Protection Corps shall not have any role in law enforcement or the maintenance of law and order," (Section 1.1.2). The fact that the TMK are clearly engaging in policing activities anyway points to the lack of control held by KFOR and UNMIK over the TMK. This is extremely dangerous given that the TMK is made up mainly of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) veterans and reportedly retains much of the KLA command structure. That minority communities perceive the TMK as a rival authority - and, moreover, one with more legitimacy than UNMIK - indicates the extent of their power more than a year after the UNMIK government's installation.

Second, it is highly questionable how effective TMK is in ensuring the security of Romani minorities. When we asked whether this was the first attack experienced by a member of the Mitrovica Ashkali community, the community leader revealed that no, last summer there had been another incident. The TMK itself had reportedly taken two members from the community and beaten them. The community leader felt that it had been resolved acceptably, however, since they had only been "a little" beaten and then were released, as TMK realised that it "had made a mistake."

UNMIK, in co-operation with OSCE, is currently training a number of Kosovar officers to become members of the Kosovo Police Service. In addition to securing legitimacy for its own officers, UNMIK must find a way to ensure that the new Kosovar officers are viewed as the legitimate source of policing authority.

However, it must also be mentioned that the recent attacks are not occurring uniformly across Kosovo. Communities in certain areas have been repeatedly targeted, while other areas appear to be relatively quiet. Some municipalities have in fact witnessed small-scale return of Roma and Ashkalija to their original homes. UNHCR has adopted a "non-promotion of return" position with regard to Kosovar Romani minority refugees living outside of the country, according to a representative who spoke to me. She explained that this means that while the organisation is not actively encouraging Romani minorities to return, it will assist them in cases where the refugees request help in coming back to the province. The representative said that the refugees interested in return typically had family members still living in their home communities and appeared to be receiving information about the viability of return from these family members. (The representative said that UNHCR also performed its own pre-return assessment in potential return areas.)

Though employees of the UNHCR have agreed to assist Romani minorities who actively initiate a return to the province, the organisation recognises that security varies widely from village to village and the situation could easily turn violent for any of the returnees. For that reason, UNHCR recently told the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) that they advocate "[...] the recognition of Kosovo Roma as refugees or persons in need of international protection [...]." With UNHCR arranging "go-and-see visits" and procuring money for reconstruction of the refugees' houses, therefore, some Romani minority refugees have left Macedonian and Montenegrin refugee camps and returned to their homes. I was unfortunately unable to speak to any of these recent returnees. The UNHCR representative had heard no reports of violence against the returnees and considered them successful. She thought the success of these returns could be attributed to several factors, including the fact that there was a significant Romani minority community already present in the return locations, that Kosovar Albanian neighbours had been consulted before the return and their good will towards returnees verified, and that UNHCR had maintained a low profile with this return project outside of the immediate community. According to UNMIK Civilian Police (CivPol) Daily Situation Reports, there have been no reports of attacks against Romani minorities in the location where many of the UNHCR-assisted returns have happened. However, in light of the problem of severe under-reporting of abuses against Romani minorities, these reports may not be accurate: returnees require constant, active monitoring by international agencies and non-governmental organisations.

Outside of the immediate incidents, other trends indicate the potential for further violence against certain groups of Kosovar Romani communities. Efforts have continued towards cementing the division between Roma, Ashkalija, and Egyptians. While opinions vary on how ethnically distinct these groups actually are (the claim to ethnically separate identities depends on a controversial and undocumented history), the present reality is that these groups have developed separate political identities. Kosovar Roma have become known as the Romani minority which speaks Serbian and Romani and is most frequently accused of having collaborated with the Yugoslav Army. The Kosovar Ashkalija speak Albanian, reportedly do not speak Romani, appear to have had stronger ties to the KLA, and presently have stronger ties to the TMK. The Kosovar Egyptians seem to occupy a middle ground, reportedly speaking both Albanian and Romani. The efforts particularly on the part of Ashkalija to distance themselves from Roma (and, in some cases, Egyptians) leaves these different ethnic "subgroups" open to different levels and types of crime. It also gives them different attitudes towards the TMK, UNMIK, and KFOR. Meanwhile, KFOR and UNMIK CivPol reports currently list members of all Romani minorities as "Roma" - which, insofar as it does not help to identify dangers for particular Romani subgroups, is insufficient.

In view of the coming elections, the potential for violence against members of Romani minorities seems to be increasing. International organisations must take into account the number and severity of attacks still being experienced by Romani minorities in their plans for assisted return and protection. Kosovo is still a very dangerous place, especially for Roma, and until the communities receive credible, effective protection there is no reason to believe the violence will stop.

Endnote:

  1. Emily Shaw is ERRC local monitor in Kosovo.

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