Kosovo Roma today: violence, insecurity, enclaves and displacement
12 April 2000
The massive wave of anti-Romani violence in Kosovo in 1999 was the single biggest catastrophe to befall the Romani community since the Romani holocaust in World War II. The situation of Roma in Kosovo, as well as Roma who have fled violence and persecution in Kosovo, remains extreme. In February 2000, the ERRC published Roma in the Kosovo Conflict: Published Materials 1999. Below, ERRC researcher Tatjana Perić provides an update of human rights developments pertaining to Kosovo Roma inside and outside Kosovo.
According to o the joint “Assessment of the Situation of Ethnic Minorities in Kosovo” report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of February 11, 2000, around 30,000 Roma lived in Kosovo in February 2000, with the reservation that “many more may be present but unreported.” Possibly over 100,000 Roma have fled Kosovo and many Roma have fled within it, especially into enclaves. In places with a predominantly ethnic Albanian population, Roma mostly live concentrated in certain neighbourhoods. The number of Roma living among ethnic Albanians is on a steady decline and expulsions of Roma by ethnic Albanians continue to be reported. For example, ethnic Albanians expelled the last five Romani families living in the village of Dobrčane, near Gnjilane, in mid-December, reported the Belgrade daily Blic on December 21, 1999. There are smaller communities of displaced Roma sheltered together with Serbs, like the Roma living in the Dečani monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church, according to the Belgrade daily Večernje novosti on December 29, 1999. Thirty-nine out of about one hundred displaced persons that were sheltered for six months at that time in the Prizren monastery were Roma, according to the Bulletin of the Diocese of Raška and Prizren of the Serbian Orthodox Church on February 10, 2000.
The larger communities that practically form Romani enclaves typically host 200-900 persons and though in many cases protected by KFOR, they mostly feature extremely difficult living conditions, especially exacerbated by the harsh winter weather in the region. Consequences have reportedly been fatal: in a camp for Romani refugees in the village of Žitkovac, near Zvečane, three men and one woman died in December due to cold, malnutrition, unhygienic living conditions, and lack of fuel, according to Belgrade daily Danasof December 23, 1999. There were 320 Roma in the camp, among them 140 children, in 46 tents, receiving one hot meal per day and some canned food and bread, according to Mr Nusret Saiti, president of the National Association of Roma, as quoted in Danas. International organisations operating in the area initially planned to transfer Roma from the Žitkovac camp to another location near Kosovska Mitrovica in October, but the move was delayed reportedly due to weather conditions. Fifty-six Romani families from Žitkovac finally moved to a new camp with solid wooden structures and adequate facilities in northeastern Mitrovica on January 18, according to the United Nations Mission in Kosovo [UNMIK] report of January 19, 2000.
In the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica, the site of violent interethnic conflicts throughout February and March, the vast majority of Roma have fled from the southern, predominantly Albanian, side to the northern, predominantly Serbian side of the Ibar river. Before the armed conflicts in Kosovo, six thousand Roma lived in the Rasadnik neighbourhood of Mitrovica. All of the Rasadnik Roma were expelled to the other side of the city, and out of the 650 Romani houses in Rasadnik, all but six were set on fire, according to the Ilustrovana Politika weekly from Belgrade on December 19, 1999. As of March 3, 2000, the makeshift camp for Roma in northern Mitrovica hosted 245 Roma, 120 of whom were children, according to the Yugoslav state news agency TANJUG.
Around 850 displaced Roma have lived for months in a crowded tent camp in Obilić, near Priština, reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on December 14, 1999; they were transferred afterwards to renovated military barracks nearby, according to the UNHCR/OSCE February report, but they “remain in a state of displacement with little prospect of returning to their homes of origin in the near future.” Also, Roma from this settlement appealed to humanitarian organisations for better food supplies, as a dozen families reported severe shortage, according to Blic on February 7, 2000.
Partly also due to severely limited possibilities for Roma in Kosovo to travel safely, when it comes to access to health services, “up to 20% of identified concentrations of Roma face [...] restricted access to medical facilities and increasingly resort to KFOR military hospitals where security and impartiality of service is effectively guaranteed,” but “can not be maintained in the long term,” according to the UNHCR/OSCE report.
Protection and justice
Despite an international protectorate in Kosovo, Roma in the province are not safe. Mr Dennis McNamara, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs in Kosovo, told a conference on Kosovo in London on January 29, 2000, that “all Serbs and many Roma” are under daily threat in Kosovo and live in a “virtual state of siege” in the province. Mr McNamara additionally stated that “there is no rule of law in Kosovo.” According to the Institute on War and Peace Reporting in London, 96 non-Albanian and non-Serb civilians, including Roma, had been killed in Kosovo from June 15 to November 22, 1999. The total number of violent deaths was 370. Though KFOR reports in November pointed to a decline in the numbers of violent incidents against minorities in Kosovo, this was likely due to the diminishing number of non-Albanians in Kosovo, and the increasing concentration of those remaining in KFOR-protected enclaves.
The 48,000-strong KFOR has come under strong criticism for not effectively exercising its mandate to ensure public safety and order. The protection of Roma by the 1800-strong international police of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which has taken over policing duties from KFOR in some areas, is widely considered dramatically inadequate, mostly due to an insufficient number of deployed police officers. In the town of Djakovica, for example, eight police officers were assigned duty in a town of 120,000 with a significant Romani population, according to the joint “Assessment of the Situation of Ethnic Minorities in Kosovo” of UNHCR and OSCE. Additionally, the indigenous Kosovo Police Service (KPS) is only in a nascent state; out of the first 173 graduates of the Kosovo Police Service School, three were Roma. There were also an unspecified number of Romani applicants among the approximately one hundred non-Albanians and non-Serbs who want to join a new civilian security force called the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC), according to the UNHCR/OSCE report.
Attempts to establish a functional legal system have been ineffective. Until early 2000, applicable law in Kosovo was under dispute; while UNMIK attempted to introduce Serbian and FRY laws, many Kosovo Albanian judicial authorities preferred the application of pre-1989 laws, before Kosovo’s autonomous status in the former Yugoslavia was abolished. A representative of the OSCE in Kosovo told the ERRC in January 2000 that the issue had been resolved by a decree of UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Kosovo Mr Bernard Kouchner, stating that law in Kosovo is the 1989 status quo — i.e. law as of the moment at which Kosovo’s autonomy within the former Yugoslavia was abolished — with some amendments to render applicable international law. In practice, Kosovo courts have dramatically failed to prosecute many serious crimes, most notably violent hate crimes. According to the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights October 1999 report, “A Fragile Peace”, and UNMIK officials, many suspects have been released by Kosovo courts since June 1999 on very flimsy grounds, such as submissions not provided in proper Albanian.
In the political sphere, the UNHCR/OSCE report noted the establishment of a new political party in December 1999 — the Ashkalia Democratic Party of Kosovo, based in Uroševac. In support of civil society in Kosovo, two Romani non-governmental organisations are in the process of registration: Democratic Hope in Podujevo, which will operate in the areas of education, culture and employment, and the Albanian-Egyptians of Kosova in Djakovica1. The report notes that at present, Roma have no “identifiable specific access to their own print media”.
Education of Romani children in Kosovo
The security vacuum in Kosovo in late February was reflected in Romani children’s school attendance as well. Though the Romani language is recognised by UNMIK as one of five languages of educational instruction, the education of Romani children has mostly been suspended for safety reasons. In most cases, Romani children face harassment by non-Romani children when attending schools, and provisions for their safety are not always at hand: in December, the local civic association Church — National Council in Gnjilane accused UNMIK of refusing to provide school transport for 27 Romani pupils in the town, according to the Kosovo Daily News internet news agency based in Dečani, western Kosovo on December 7, 1999. Local Roma asked for a van to take their children to school, as they considered it unsafe for their children to walk to school for fear of attacks by ethnic Albanians. UNMIK reportedly responded that they did not have resources for this kind of activity. In Kosovo Polje, some 650 Romani children do not attend school, as they do not feel safe, despite promises of fair treatment by local ethnic Albanian leaders, reported the UNHCR and OSCE. In the Halit Ibishi neighbourhood of Uroševac, a planned UNMIK survey on access by Romani and Ashkalia children to school had to be postponed, as the families stopped sending children to school for safety reasons, according to the UNMIK “Kosovo Humanitarian Update” of February 25, 2000. The report registered similar concerns in the Peć area, where KFOR began patrolling a local school road in order to allow school attendance of Romani children. The children had stopped going to school after they were harassed by non-Romani pupils outside the school.
Romani refugees from Kosovo outside the province:
Serbia and Montenegro
On March 1, 2000, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Commission for Refugees of the Republic of Serbia began registering so-called “internally displaced persons (IDPs)” from Kosovo in the territory of Serbia proper, reported the Agence France-Presse on March 2. The registration process was planned to take six weeks. Estimates of the overall number of displaced persons from Kosovo in Serbia and Montenegro range from 240,000, according to UNHCR, to 300,000, according to the Refugee Commission, out of which, according to the UNHCR, approximately 40-50,000 are Roma. Romani organisations in Serbia contest this figure — the Union of Roma Students from Belgrade claimed on March 1, 2000, that as of that date there were 80,000 Kosovo Roma in Yugoslavia, of which 60,000 lived outside organised accommodation, in Romani settlements throughout the country. Those Roma accommodated collectively in Serbia generally live in substandard structures. In Kuršumlija, southern Serbia, most of the 1000 Roma from Kosovo were accommodated under tents or in the unfinished building of a local cultural centre as of March 1, 2000, as reported by the Roma Information and Documentation Centre from Belgrade. There was no infrastructure in the building to provide for the basic hygienic standards; eight babies were reportedly born there this winter in deplorable conditions, including the lack of any medical assistance.
In the Serbian province of Vojvodina, the number of all internally displaced persons from Kosovo registered with the regional office of the Yugoslav Red Cross was 12,633 on February 11, 2000. It was not known how many of these are Roma, and local NGOs report that many displaced Kosovo Roma in Vojvodina are in fact not registered as IDPs, due to their lack of any identity documents, or unwillingness to register with the Serbian authorities for fear of being forcibly returned to Kosovo. Non-governmental humanitarian organisation Novi Sad Humanitarian Center (NSHC), based in Novi Sad, reported in February on the situation with Roma IDPs in several municipalities of Vojvodina, including Bačka Topola. Many Roma who fled from Kosovo to the Topola area have been displaced for a second time in recent years: they had previously fled from the Baranja region in Croatia to Kosovo, and have recently again been forced to flee from Kosovo to Vojvodina. In Topola, they live on abandoned isolated farms, without water, electricity or sewage. However, not being in collective camps, they are considered to be accommodated privately, and no authority takes responsibility for their housing. Roma from this group reportedly had no documents and therefore could not register with local authorities in order to enjoy health care provided by the state; they received humanitarian aid, but irregularly. The children did not attend the local school, either because they were too old for regular primary education, or because the lack of hygienic conditions, clothes and footwear prevent them from going to school, according to NSHC. The organisation noted the problem of education of Romani children from Kosovo in several other instances, stressing that it was, additionally, very often the case that Romani children spoke Albanian only and had previously attended Albanian schools in Kosovo.
In Montenegro, the first count of IDPs from Kosovo, organised by UNHCR and the Commissariat for Displaced Persons of the Government of Montenegro, resulted in registering 29,482 persons, of whom 5596 were Roma and 907 Egyptians, as of December 14, 1999, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on December 20. A follow-up registration put the overall number to 30,819, with pending applications of 215 families, as reported by OCHA on January 27, 2000. Regarding the number of displaced Roma, NGOs operating in the region estimated the actual number to be higher, up to possibly 8000 persons as of March 14. Among them, some had first fled to Serbia and then continued to Montenegro, due to reportedly worse living conditions for the displaced in Serbia in comparison to Montenegro, according to UNHCR Podgorica as quoted in the Belgrade daily Glas javnosti on February 22, 2000.
In the Konik/Vrela Ribnička refugee camp for Roma near the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, harsh winter weather rendered living for Roma in tents extremely difficult. On December 6, 1999, very strong winds destroyed 135 and damaged 50 tents in the camp, and injured eight persons, according to the Podgorica-based daily Vijesti on December 7. As there were virtually no inhabitable tents left, the refugees — whose official number at the time according to UNHCR was 1300, but estimated to be twice that by NGOs — were transferred into some fifty barracks in the neighbourhood. These barracks were already inhabited, having been previously built to shelter refugees from the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. In the aftermath of the storm, with the high numbers of new arrivals, the living conditions in the settlement were described as “horrifying”. According to the local office of the international non-governmental organisation World Vision, for a long time preceding the storm, a number of NGOs offered financial support to build solid structures for Romani refugees from the camp. Nevertheless, for months, the local authorities failed to approve such projects, saying that it was not permissible to build residences in the area proposed. Finally, after the storm left thousands of Roma homeless, on December 10, the municipality of Podgorica gave permission for the temporary use of the land in question for the accommodation of refugees, also allowing the construction of infrastructure for the camp, as reported by the Montenegrin news agency Montena-fax.
According to the OCHA report of January 13, 2000, 2200 Roma lived in the Konik/Vrela Ribnička camp, some in fifty newly-constructed prefabricated houses, and 133 persons living in common buildings serving as kitchens, awaiting construction of additional shelters. A month later, on February 15, a tragedy occurred when fire broke out in one of the kitchens, housing two families with thirteen members, of which nine were in at the time of fire, reported Glas javnosti on February 16. A fourteen-month-old baby Fama Dervišaj burned to death in the fire, and Mr Zećir Kereljaj, her uncle, was severely injured while trying to save the baby sleeping in her cradle. Mr Kereljaj had previously rescued her eight-year-old brother Namzi Dervišaj, who also suffered burns and had to be hospitalised. The building subsequently burned to the ground, according to the daily. The Belgrade daily Blic reported on February 21 that, at the time of the incident, the camp actually numbered 2750 people.
Romani refugees from Kosovo in other countries
Mr Dennis McNamara, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs in Kosovo, stated in London on January 29, “There can be no return to Kosovo of Roma and Serb refugees at present, [...] patience is required on the part of host states eager to see early returns.” In a paper dated October 1, 1999, the UNHCR strongly discouraged states considering returns of refugees from Kosovo to other areas of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, on grounds of so-called “internal flight alternatives”. The UNHCR wrote: “reasonable internal relocation alternatives for these groups [including Roma] are not likely to be generally available.”
March 28, 2000, was the deadline set in September 1999 by the Macedonian government as the date on which temporary protection of displaced persons from Kosovo in Macedonia, most of whom are Roma, would end. On March 22, Macedonian authorities announced that the deadline had been extended to June 28, 2000. The ERRC remains concerned that following expiration of the June 28 deadline, Macedonian authorities may attempt to expel Roma.
Another issue arising from the expiration of the status of “humanitarian-assisted persons” in Macedonia — most of whom are Roma — is the expected ensuing closure of camps accommodating them. Out of 15,000 Romani refugees in Macedonia some 3000 were in camps, and the rest were hosted privately, with relatives and friends, as estimated by the UNHCR and reported by the Alternativna informativna mreža (AIM) Internet information network on January 31, 2000. Since the dismantling of the Stenkovec 2 tent camp in early December 1999, Romani refugees not staying in private houses have lived in seven former summer resorts: two camps in Struga, two in Pretor, and one each in Saraj (Čičino selo), Ljubanci, Dare Bombol and Probištip. Living conditions in camps were reported as unsatisfactory: in late January, refugees accommodated in the Struga camp complained that they lived without electricity and heating; in early February, it was reported to the ERRC that the camp in Saraj is located in the vicinity of the city garbage dump, and that visits to refugees were not permitted; in Ljubanci, refugees feel isolated as the camp is high in the mountains.
According to the Party of Roma in Croatia on February 10, 2000, around 2000 Kosovo Roma have arrived in Croatia in the last two years. None of them have refugee status. Many Kosovo Roma have never registered their arrival, some having entered the country illegally because of their lack of identity documents or lack of proper visas. There is a restrictive visa policy in effect in Croatia with respect to citizens of Yugoslavia. Although this should not prevent refugees from entering the country, in effect it does.
In Belgium, some 3500 Kosovo Roma have applied for asylum as of November 1999, according to the Dutch legal aid organisation Stichting Rechtsbijstand Asiel. As of January 18, 2000, there was no information available on how many Roma had been recognised as refugees. In Germany, the Göttingen-based, non-governmental organisation Society for Threatened Peoples reported on January 14, 2000, that 4508 Kosovo Roma had applied for asylum in the period from August to November 1999, and that many other Kosovo Roma had applied to local authorities for a so-called “Duldung” — a temporary deportation stop. It is estimated by the Cologne-based organisation Rom e.V. that the number of Kosovo Roma who have arrived in Germany since the beginning of armed conflicts in Kosovo numbers 12,000 - 18,000 individuals. The rate of recognition of refugee status for Kosovars in Germany is under 1%, according to the London-based non-governmental organisation European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) of February 2000. Some human rights activists have accused German authorities of failing to process asylum applications by Kosovo Roma for indefinite periods of time in order to avoid recognising them as refugees.
More than 7000 Kosovo Roma reportedly arrived in Italy in summer 1999, and the number of all Kosovo Roma arrivals in Italy since spring 1998 may be more than twice that, according to the Italian non-governmental organisation ARCI on February 3, 2000. Kosovo Roma who arrived in Italy before August 8, 1999, have residence permits and the right to employment, while all the Kosovo refugees who reached Italy after that date, and who are mostly Roma, are considered illegal immigrants. The temporary residence permits that Italian authorities have provided to Kosovo Roma in most cases expired at the end of 1999. Local police have the power to allocate residence permits on the vague criterion of ‘humanitarian grounds’.
There are around 2500 Kosovo Roma in Sweden, of whom approximately 1000 were waiting for a response to their asylum applications at the time of publication, according to Romernas Riksförbund. All Kosovars are under temporary protection status until April 30, 2000. In Switzerland, there are around 500 Kosovo Roma asylum applicants, according to the non-governmental organisation Schweizerische Flüchtlingshilfe on January 17, 2000. Roma whose requests for a prolongation of stay have been accepted will be able to remain in the country under temporary protection status until May 31, 2000. As this issue of Roma Rights went to press, the number of Kosovo Roma in Switzerland, including arrivals from previous decades, was estimated at 30,000 by the Swiss branch of Amnesty International. According to ECRE, the rate of refugee status recognition for persons from Kosovo is only 1.2%. One common point for all countries mentioned is that those displaced from Kosovo were generally given temporary protection and not refugee status, and cases of Kosovo Roma recognised as refugees are extremely rare.
Continuing violence against Roma in Kosovo: an update
From November 15, 1999, to March 14, 2000, KFOR has registered the following violent anti-Romani incidents in the province. In none of the cases were perpetrators identified:
The ERRC registered a case of violence by ethnic Albanians against a Macedonian Romani man in Kosovo on an unspecified date in October 1999. Mr D.N., a Romani man from Berovo, eastern Macedonia, was driving his truck towards Priština when, some 5-6 kilometres after crossing the Macedonian border with Kosovo, he was intercepted by a group of five ethnic Albanians. After the attackers asked for his identity and learned that he was Romani, they kicked Mr D.N. and beat him with wooden sticks all over his body. After a while the group left Mr D.N., saying that they "do not want to see any more Roma in Kosovo."
According to the Belgrade daily Blic of December 21, 1999, a group of four ethnic Albanians terrorised the thirty-two Roma from the families of Ms Nazmije Šabani, Mr Bahtijar Ibrajmovski, Mr Izet Ibrajmovski, Mr Ramadan Ibrajmovski, and Mr Ramadan Gudinci, in the village of Dobrčane, in the Gnjilane municipality, at the end of the previous week. According to Blic, the masked attackers, who were nevertheless recognised as co-villagers, verbally abused the Roma, beat several of them, including Ms Šabani and her 70-year-old mother. The attackers reportedly struck the latter woman on the head with the axe handle, and attempted to rape several of the women. The attackers gave the Roma 24 hours to leave the village. The Roma immediately fled to Bujanovac, a town in Serbia near the border with Kosovo. The situation in Bujanovac itself could not be described as safe. Late in the evening on December 30, 1999, three bombs exploded in the Romani settlement of Bujanovac, injuring two women of the Asmedin family, and causing damage to the house.
Back in Kosovo, in Obilić, unknown attackers threw a Molotov cocktail into the Kosovo B neighbourhood, an area with many Romani inhabitants, around 10:30 PM on February 4, reported Blic on February 7, 2000. UNMIK also registered unspecified attacks on Roma in Prizren, Štimlje, and Uroševac, and against Ashkalia in the Uroševac area, in the previous two weeks, according to their "Kosovo Humanitarian Update No. 22" of February 25, 2000. On the evening of March 12, an explosion occurred in the Romani settlement of Orahovac, reported Blic on March 13; there was no information available on any damage or casualties.
An additional obstacle for the normalisation of the life in the province is the fate of 2987 missing persons in Kosovo, among them 75 Roma and 21 Egyptians, registered by the International Committee of the Red Cross as of March 14, 2000. There are claims that some Kosovo Romani women kidnapped by ethnic Albanians have been forced to work as prostitutes in nightclubs in the province, quoted the Belgrade magazine Svedok of February 22, 2000.
(Blic, ERRC, International Committee of the Red Cross, KFOR, Svedok, UNMIK)
- The terms "egyptians" and "Ashkalia" used in this article refer to two ethnic groups in Kosovo distancing themselves from Roma who are, nevertheless, still regarded as Roma by most non-Roma, both groups are Albanian-speaking and in general are Muslims.