Romani Return to the Mitrovica Mahalla Marred with Problems

19 June 2007

A number of Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian (RAE) families who were displaced in Serbia and a small part of the those who were in 2006 relocated to Osterode camp, started to return to South Mitrovica where a joint UN/non-governmental organisation project is placing camp residents in newly constructed homes, according to a press release by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) of 30 March 2007. Since 1999, approximately 700 RAE originally from Roma mahala in South Mitrovica who fled to North Mitrovica to escape violence have been living in IDP camps subject to lead poisoning and dire living conditions.

According to UNMIK, the move is part of a multi-pronged effort by the provisional government of Kosovo, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the UN Development Program (UNDP), and UNMIK, with funding from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, the Swedish International Development Agency and the European Agency for Reconstruction, amongst others. The progamme was launched in response to scandals surrounding lead poisoning in several camps for IDPs in and around Mitrovica.

The programme aims to resettle 102 families, or more than 500 RAE, in the new homes by the end of the summer 2007. At the time of the UNMIK press release, 24 flats and 54 houses were completed, and another 24 flats under construction. The Scandinavian organisations Norwegian Church Aid and Danish Refugee Council undertook the construction of the new homes. However, according to a report in the Pristina newspaper Koha Ditore of 5 March, 36 houses for 57 families had been completed.

On 24 April, the ERRC travelled to Mitrovica to examine progress in the return of Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptians from the IDP camps to the new homes, constructed on the territory of the former Roma mahala. Discussions with local RAE representatives, camp residents and an examination of the new homes revealed a different situation and indicated serious concerns with the "Return to the Roma Mahala" project.

Residents of the Osterode IDP camp complained to the ERRC that since December 2006, humanitarian food aid had been cut for residents of that camp. In addition, doctors who had regularly checked the health status of children in the camp had also stopped coming since January 2007. At the same time as services are being cut in the camps, Mr Skender Gusani, a representative of the residents of the former Romani mahala and himself a resident of one of the IDP camps implicated in the lead poisoning scandal, informed ERRC staff members that the process of moving camp residents to the newly built houses was extremely problematic. Mr Gusani's primary concern related to the fact that while 57 families had moved into the new flats and houses, only 13 of those families had been living in the IDP camps in Northern Mitrovica. The majority of the families given housing in the new buildings were reportedly Romani, Ashkalia and Egyptian returnees from Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, other parts of Kosovo, and elsewhere.

Indeed, the first house in the reconstruction area the ERRC approached was inhabited by a family who had returned from Montenegro, to live in their new home. Under such circumstances, the success of the response of the international community involved in the "Return to the Roma Mahalla" project, intended to move Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptians away from the hazardous living conditions in the camps, is questionable. Mr Gusani informed the ERRC that the reason for this absurd situation stemmed from the fact that the Steering Group established to make decisions related to the allocation of the new flats and houses was comprised entirely of UNMIK, UNHRC, OSCE and Mitrovica Municipality representatives, with not a single member of the RAE community. According to Mr Gusani, he had requested to sit on the Steering Group but was told that he could participate as an observer only. One day before the ERRC visit, on behalf of his organisation, Association for Protecting Roma Rights, Mr. Gusani sent an open letter to all relevant actors, describing the problems and highlighting mistakes in the assignment of housing and lack of response from UNMIK authorities.

Mr Gusani also voiced discontent to the ERRC on behalf of the Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian community with the fact that ownership of the new houses was not being passed to the occupants. Property rights were given to the occupants in the form of 99-year leases. Mr Gusani expressed great frustration with this given that houses were intended for those Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptians who had legally owned their houses in the mahala before the war.

In addition to the obvious problems in the return process, the ERRC noted that the condition of the houses built under the supervision of Danish Refugee Council (DRC) were of very poor quality. The houses built with large red bricks, were, though families had already moved in, not finished on the outside, leaving the houses in an apparent condition on non-completion. The red bricks were themselves both the outer and inner walls, with no form of insulation included in the construction; the interior walls had merely been painted white. At the same time, there was no heating system installed in the houses. The houses were heated by electric heaters purchased by the occupants. Almost all of the homes were constructed on multiple levels, and one house visited by the ERRC had stairs on the outside of the structure which the occupants had to use to move between their sleeping area and their living, eating and sanitary area. Given the winter weather in Kosovo, such conditions are highly inadequate.

Planning of the area was done in a haphazard manner. Some houses had been built within one metre of each other, while others were without any neighbouring structure for around 100 metres. Rubble and dust had not been covered with grass or stone and in the windy weather on the day of the ERRC visit, dust and dirt filled the air making it impossible to be outside in the area. Further information on the situation of Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptians in Kosovo is available Here

(Association for Protecting Roma Rights, ERRC, Koha Ditore, UNMIK)

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