„It Was a Bear Hunt... There Were Lots of People Who Enjoyed the Atmosphere" - Interviews with Roma Refugees from Bosnia
12 October 1996
The following are the transcripts of interviews made by the European Roma Rights Center in a refugee camp in Hungary, May 21–22, 1996. The Bosnian Roma interviewed described the events of the early part of the war in Bosnia as well as the past four and a half years that they have spent in various refugee camps.
At the start of the war, the two interviewees were married and living with their two children in a Romani neighborhood in Zvornik, a town on the Drina River which forms the Eastern border of Bosnia with Serbia. Since then, the couple has separated. In early April 1992, Zvornik was attacked and quickly taken by Bosnian Serbs acting in conjunction with the JNA, the Yugoslav National Army.
One non-Romani witness reported to the ERRC that while on her way to do „volunteer" work organized by the Bosnian Serb authorities on April 9, 1992, several days after the beginning of the siege, she saw „the whole city covered in corpses. People had been killed with knives and mutilated. They were mostly men who had been decapitated or had no eyes or arms."
The same witness told the ERRC, „There were mass killings of Roma - it made no difference whether they were men or women. The Roma were targeted because it was believed that they had money in cash and gold. Roma, since they never trusted the banks, kept their money in cash and were therefore the only group who had money after the banks collapsed."
Zvornik remains, under the Dayton Peace Accords, under Bosnian Serb control.
As a matter of policy, where requested, or where the European Roma Rights Center believes there is a danger to the victim or witness, initials have been used in the place of names.
H.K., Bosnian Romani Man, aged 50, Taxi Driver from Zvornik, Bosnia, interviewed May 21-22, 1996 in a refugee camp in Hungary
We Roma were targeted by the Serbs in the spring of 1992 when they attacked Zvornik. The reason for this was that they believed we had money.
There are many Roma in the refugee camps in Hungary, mixed in with the Bosnian Muslims. There are quite a lot of Roma, but they do not admit to being Roma. A Romani woman who used to be my wife is also in this camp, but now she lives with another man. The things that happened in the war separated us. In this camp at the moment there are some Roma, from various places in Bosnia. And it is interesting that for some reason, Roma always remain behind while the others are leaving for Western countries. No one wants to take Roma in the West, so people think a little bit, and then they do not reveal their background.
The whole Romani community of Zvornik was slaughtered. Our houses were destroyed. The streets where Roma lived were covered with corpses. My ex-wife stayed behind in Zvornik and must have seen a lot. Go and speak with her; she is over there across the lawn right now, watching us; but if you say you are interested in Roma, she won't speak. She is Romani, but she, too, wants to emigrate to a better place.
There were two streets where Roma lived in Zvornik: one was The 19th of February Street and the other was Kuljanski Put. We lived in Kuljanski Put. We were respectable people with jobs and homes. In fact, I had two houses, an old one and a new one. The other Roma called us „Yerli" - that means „rich Roma" in the Balkans. Roma didn't put their money in banks. Most of the Roma had Muslim names. Most were not very educated. Those who were educated realized what was happening and ran away in time.
Others wanted to stay and defend themselves and their homes. They stood in the doorways of their houses and waited for the army to come. No Roma was ever armed, so by defending I just mean that we wanted to be there - stupid enough, as if by being there we could save our houses. We did not have firearms; we only had various tools - knives, spades, etc.
During the Serbian attack, I watched a Bosnian Serb woman soldier who walked the streets of Zvornik, shooting. The cruelty of these women soldiers is well known - they cut the genitals off corpses, people say. It was a bear hunt at that time. There were lots of people who enjoyed the atmosphere.
When Zvornik was overrun by the Serbs, somewhere between April 7 and 13, 1992, I ran away. I went up the hill to Kula with other men and stayed there. It was just an old tower on our side of the river and everybody fled there. The „resistance" was up there. We hid up there and drank.
After four days up on the hill, I went down to the town. I knew it was hopeless. I walked down the path into town toward the river. The path passes through the Gypsy neighborhood and Kuljanski Put and The 19th of February Street. At the bottom is the center of town and then the river. Zvornik is in the river valley. As I came down the mountain I heard music coming from the mosque. It was drunk Serbs. I saw the remains of burnt clothing in the street.
I found my wife with our two children hiding, together with a crowd of other Roma, in the basement of a house on our street. The other people in the cellar were nervous about me being there. They were all from the same street - Kuljanski Put. People shouted at my wife to get out - that because of me they would be discovered.
So my wife, the children and I left and headed toward our house, but at that point we were taken by Serbs. They forced us to walk across the bridge to Mali Zvornik, in Serbia (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). The Drina runs through Zvornik. It is the border between Bosnia and Serbia - Mali Zvornik is over on the Serbian side.
They took us across the river in a group with some other people to the hydroelectric plant over there and held us there for several hours. Nobody knew what they wanted to do with us. But after several hours, someone asked how long we would have to wait there, and they answered that we didn't have to wait there, we could go. So they just let us go.
We went back to (Veliki) Zvornik. In town everything was a mess. Most houses were looted. My old house was destroyed. There was a row of smashed cars in it. The house sits on a corner and a tank had come along and pushed a whole row of cars in it, so where the living room used to be, there was pile of crushed cars. The new house was OK though. Other houses on the street were completely looted. People were coming up to me and asking me for construction material. The people were afraid. The atmosphere was horrible. People went everywhere in groups, so there would be witnesses in case anything happened to them.
I stayed in Zvornik for two days. Drunk Serb soldiers were everywhere in the streets. All the stores were empty and had broken windows. The streets were full of dogs and also sheep and goats. I've never seen so many dogs.
I was drunk the whole time. One time, a soldier grabbed me and said he wanted to talk to me. My wife wanted to know why. The soldier said they had to take me to the hospital to do some blood tests. So my wife started shouting at him; „Can't you see he's completely drunk? How are you going to do blood tests on him?" So he let me go.
I wanted to leave immediately. Everybody was saying that they were taking all the men. But my wife wanted to stay - she said, how can I leave the house? But I told my wife I had to leave. She still wanted to stay to take care of the house. So I let her stay. But I told her, „When they come to you, don't resist, because if you defend yourself, they will kill you."
When I was leaving Zvornik, my wife came to see me off. We walked through town with me holding the children. There were drunk soldiers everywhere. The streets were a mess. As we walked through one of the Gypsy streets, down toward the river, one woman called to me by name from behind a gate. When I came closer, she whispered, „Don't go down there - They are at the bottom with a truck and they are taking away the men." So we went back up and went around. That woman saved my life.
We walked down the other street. When we got to the bottom, I saw soldiers coming. So that I didn't seem afraid or like I was hiding, I went up to one of them and started yelling at him about the dogs. I told him it was a shame about them just running around in the street like that and someone should do something and I went off shaking my head like I was very angry.
We crossed the river. They let us across the bridge, which was guarded at both ends. The only open grocery store was across the river, so people were passing fairly regularly. We went to Mali Zvornik on the Serbian side and then I was in Serbia.
My wife came with me as far as in Loznica (Serbia/Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) and then she went back. She took the children back to Zvornik, and I went on and reached Sabac.
In Sabac I stayed in a hotel. I had a chance to stay with a family in Sabac, but it seemed like a ghetto. In one house they were having Muslim services, a funeral. There was a sign destroyed. One of the men there said it was OK to sleep there. But some other people were saying, „Better not stay there - they might bomb it." I had the same feeling of being in danger.
So I stayed in a hotel. I didn't have a lot of money, but my thinking was this: if they come and take me from a hotel, someone will know, because I am registered in the hotel. They make you write your name in a book, so if they took me away, my name would be in the book, and eventually, someone would find out that I had been in the hotel, so I chose the hotel.
I talked to my wife on the phone. One day, when I realized it would last longer, I asked her to come to Ĺ abac with my passport and the children. But on the phone she sounded strange.
Then she came to Sabac, but she had only one child with her. This was strange too. She had left the other child in Zvornik. She had changed too - I mean her appearance. She wore strange sporty clothes that she never had before, and she was looking in all the shop windows in Sabac, as if there was no war on. I insisted that she go back, bring the other child, and that we leave together and go to Hungary. It was already June. I had been in the hotel for 35 days maybe. I knew that all the Zvornik refugees were leaving Sabac. But she did not agree. She went back, and our conversations on the phone became even more odd. She kept saying that everything back home was normal. At one point I even believed that.
And they were taking people away from Serbia too: In Sabac I met the three K. brothers - N., J. and P. They are Bosnians who had escaped to Serbia from Zvornik too. But the police picked them up on the street there and no one has seen them since. J.'s wife is a Serb who lives in the other camp. She hasn't seen her husband since 1993.
Then one day I found a taxi driver who would bring me to Subotica. First I went to a camp for Muslims there. There was a bad atmosphere at the camp in Subotica. My passport had expired, and I needed a paper from the Red Cross in order to get an extension stamp in my passport. I didn't like it there at all. There was a man there with a megaphone - "Djuro" - He was giving orders and shouting into the megaphone. From the way he was talking, I saw people were afraid of him.
I wanted to know how to get the papers. Some Gypsies told me the best way to get the papers for my passport was to go back to Bačka Topola. So I went to Bačka Topola and it was another world there: Hungarians! They offered me tea and clothes, and within one hour I had my passport. I wanted to go back and tell the others but someone told me not to be stupid. On June 11, I crossed the border and came to Nagyatád refugee camp in Hungary.
I've been in Hungarian refugee camps since then, except for the six weeks I spent in Teplice in the Czech Republic, trying to get into Germany. We couldn't get papers to get into Germany, though we spent four weeks at the Masaryk School in Teplice waiting for papers and talking to reporters there.
While I was in Teplice, I got a phone call from my wife, who had made it to the camp in Subotica where the man with the megaphone had been. A woman at the Czech camp gave me papers to get my wife out of Serbia. She got to Hungary, and I found her at the Csongrád refugee center.
Our two children live now with me: a girl, 7 years old, and a boy, age 4. They live with me, because their mother has a baby from the other man, a Croat who she lives with. She is with him only because he has the advantage to be Croat, while I am Rom. People do not understand this, but in fact she loves me and for the other man she has only a temporary attraction. Any time I wanted to be transferred, she went to the office and had my transfer blocked or she arranged to be transferred to the same place too.
H.K., Bosnian Romani Woman, 30, estranged wife of H.K., from Zvornik, Bosnia, interviewed in refugee camp in Hungary on 22 May, 1996
I was in Zvornik for five months after the Serbs overran the city. They were the five hardest months of my life.
I had two kids then - Now I have three. At the time I was married to H.K., but now I live with a Croat from Vukovar. Lots of marriages split up in the war and then in the camps. A woman has to have a man or steal to feed her children. The food here in this camp is terrible and it smells bad.
When the war started, we went up to the place known as Kula, outside Zvornik. That was Friday, April 6th, just before our Bairam (1), at 11:00 AM. When I heard shooting, I took the children and ran to the forest, together with many others, toward Kula. But after two hours, I returned home, with the children.
We spent the next seven days hiding in a cellar - not our own cellar, one three houses down from ours on Kuljanski Put, the street where we lived. There was shooting and every night at eleven or twelve there were explosions. Most people who lived on Kuljanski Put have been slaughtered. The Gurbeti area of Zvornik, where the Roma lived, paid the highest price. Lots of old people lived there and the Serbs thought that these were beggars and were very rich. The houses were big there, so it was the first place they went.
The only remaining shop which was still open was in Mali Zvornik, across the river, in Serbia (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). There was one bridge over to the other side. In our part of Zvornik, everything was destroyed. So to shop we had to cross the bridge. There were soldiers at all times on the bridge and they would drop the food we had just bought into the Drina for no reason. There was a table on the bridge where Serb soldiers would drink beer and check people crossing. You were forced to pay these soldiers. I tried several times to buy food, but I never succeeded in bringing it back across the bridge. For fun, they would ask Muslim women to shoot at the mosque. They also made us Muslim women wear Serbian military uniforms and walk around on the street. This was so that other people would think you were sleeping with the soldiers.
Soldiers came every day to the house of a neighbor of mine, a Romani woman, Z.K., who was killed by them in the end. She was 38 years old. She was a very beautiful, stately, attractive woman. She was married in Sabac and she lived there with her two young sons. She had come back to Zvornik to visit her mother and father. Then she couldn't leave.
She was supposed to cook for them. She was supposed to wear their uniform and go out on the street. A soldier whose first name was Robe - they called him that - came every day to her in a green Renault. He often forced her to walk around in Serbian uniform. Toward the end, she became depressed and apathetic, and wouldn't communicate with us any longer. She was obedient and made them coffee when they came to the house. Finally this soldier, Robe from Mali Zvornik, killed her. Robe was around 25. He shot her in the head with a pistol with a silencer. I had never seen one of these before. Her old parents were also there when this happened.
Other women were killed too. There were only women left in Zvornik. The same man, Robe, also killed S.X., 50, and S.A., 45 the same day. They lived in the same big house as Z.K. S.X. has an Albanian family name. She was 50 but looked younger. She lived in our street. She was a big, pretty woman - a smuggler who brought things from Turkey. They killed her because they thought she had money. S.A.'s brother had a bakery. She worked in a shop. S.A. had to sleep with soldiers.
The three women were killed together at around 4:00 in the afternoon by Robe. The green Renault came. It was driving very fast. We were all on the street - There were lots of people around. We could here the sound of the tires. A man had come and said, „Run to your rooms. When this man comes, he will kill you." I didn't see the shooting. I hid in my house. I heard the car pass. He killed the three women. I came out of the house and saw the bodies in the street. There were other witnesses. The street was full. F.R. was there and so was M.R.
The patrols came. They did not let anyone take the bodies away. Z.K.'s old mother asked to be killed as well. She begged them to either let her bury them or to kill her as well. They said they would come back with a truck. I don't know what happened to the bodies.
I don't know what happened to the man. I think he was put on trial. I heard rumors from people in Sakara - a Muslim village. Z.K.'s father had a vegetable shop in Mali Zvornik, so he knew the murderer.
The biggest gravesite of victims of the massacre is in Karakaj, a village three kilometers from Zvornik. This is near Kazanbašča. There were factories there. During the war they were used as prisons. Many people must be buried there. Only the men were kept there. Everybody knows about this. The men were killed and buried in mass graves from April and May 1992.
The first group of men rounded up when the war started was killed there. You couldn't go out of the house at that time; women were screaming, „They took my husband". One of the women here lost her husband this way. She doesn't know what happened to him. Her name is M.S. She lived on the street called Grobnica in Zvornik. She is here in this refugee center now.
Other Roma died in the villages of Drinjača and Kasaba. My father spent two years in the camp at Batković. He is now in Gračanica.
The soldiers came in our houses often. There were many rapes. They were Arkan paramilitary soldiers and maybe some others. Sometimes soldiers came in different uniforms, so it was hard to know.
One time they came to me, too. If I survived that, I can survive anything. He came during the day and said he wanted to sleep with me. I did not want to sleep with him. He came back that night around 11:00 PM and dropped a bomb in front of my house. The windows and doors broke open. When it was all over and he was leaving, he said, „Do you see that I haven't harmed you? It would be good to take you Muslim women to camps to bear our Serbian children." I don't know his name. He was tall and thin and he carried a gun. It was close to the window, so I would recognize his face. He had a Zippo lighter. I had the feeling that this man would kill my son. I wanted to save my son's life. I have no guilt.
I had a nervous breakdown at the Hungarian refugee camp at Csongrád. I was very sick. I was in the hospital for 21 days. I remember everything. I feel like I am drowning or falling and I have nightmares about him. There was a psychologist in the hospital, but I didn't tell him anything. I know that no one can help me. This is the first time now, four years later, that I've told anyone about this. I am telling this to you because I cannot bear it any more. We are all psychologically disturbed here. But you see, he would kill me and the children, if I had not agreed to sleep with him. I am afraid that my daughter, who is 7 now, saw everything.
Baraim is one of the two major festival days in Islam. It is part of the three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting.