The last Yugoslavs
15 July 1999
I was born forty-three years ago in a town called Prizren in Kosovo where I grew up with my family. I am of Romani origin; I prefer not to say ethnicity, as in my family we were not brought up to feel that way. We believe that we are human beings first of all. For us there are no divisions, everybody is human. When we are talking about identity, we sometimes refer to non-Roma as gadje, but as I often explain to people, this is not a pejorative term, unlike those which society always gave to us Roma: „Cigans" — „Gypsies". I think that I am a human being before I am Romani or Kosovar — I believe I am a Rom from Europe, not just from Kosovo.
Often people think I am something different — that I am Jewish, Italian or even Arabic. When I tell them that I am Romani, they don't believe me. They don't want to believe me because they don't want to believe that somebody like me, who is clean, who is well dressed, who is a journalist — someone who is basically what other people are — is also a Rom. People think that I must be something very special because I have succeeded. For me, personally, this is sometimes very funny. But other times it makes me very bitter, having to battle for so many years to show my inner identity. Society is like a needle forcing me to be a stronger Rom — to be a nationalist, a radical, sometimes even an extremist.
I have often had to change my outside identity, but I cannot and do not want to change what I am inside. I have a Turkish name so people often thought I was Turkish. When I applied to secondary school in Kosovo, it was part of the old Yugoslavia, and everywhere there were ethnic quotas. The first time I applied I wrote that I was Romani. I was not accepted. Then I applied again as Turkish, because my name is Turkish, but again they rejected me. So I applied a third time as an Albanian and this time I was accepted. However, the school secretary realised that I was the same person and called me to her office. She said to me that I am not Albanian, and I did not deny it; I told her that I am Romani, but that on paper I am Albanian. I understood already that I had to play the political game, but that my real sense of identity was stronger than the game. My classmates knew that I was Romani and not Albanian, but they never gave me any problems over this. Before the break up of the former Yugoslavia, there was always a sense that the Albanians were favoured in Kosovo.
When it was part of the former Yugoslavia, many official documents in Kosovo were bi- or even trilingual: Turkish, Albanian and Serbian, but never Romani. We were not considered important — as a Rom you had no real status. To be recognised by the authorities, we had to declare ourselves as Albanian or Turkish, to record ourselves as such on official documents such as birth certificates. My family still has documents from the old times that say we are Albanians and some that say we are Turks. Because of the political atmosphere today, this can cause problems. Roma today are paying for manipulation in Kosovo in the 1970s.
But we maintained our Romaniness in spite of the obstacles. My elementary school teacher told me one day in front of the class that I should get involved with a new Romani cultural association in Prizren. He told the class that they should support me when I was active in it. I was very proud. I learnt then that I should tell people that I am a Rom. I started to feel that I should work to help society deal with its problems, because the problems were with them, with the whites. We Roma knew who we were. The association was one of four nationality-based cultural associations in Prizren and there was a rivalry to show who could best represent their cultural traditions. It was an important place, because it was somewhere where Roma could express their identity. We organised community events, language courses and youth programmes. We even set up a Romani theatre in the town. There are many Romani activists, professors, teachers and journalists from Prizren.
More and more though, a political and social atmosphere developed in Kosovo in which you had to choose what your identity was. Somehow, being Romani was not an option. Everybody was very surprised when there was a Romani representative at the talks in Rambouillet. But there, the Serbs just wanted to show that Kosovo is multinational, which it is.
Roma are the last Yugoslavs. Roma from Kosovo have relatives in all of the states of former Yugoslavia, many of them living in extremely precarious circumstances. They have no idea what would happen if Kosovo became a republic, and the insecurity of the future makes most Roma cling even more to a sense that Yugoslavia was the best arrangement for everyone. Most of the Roma in Kosovo are Muslim and some of them are Christians. Some of the Kosovo Roma are pro-Albanian and some are pro-Serbian, but all of them are in the middle. They are caught between two sides of a war. Neither side is the Romani side, and all of their decisions are made from a position of weakness. There is no word in our vocabulary for war. The idea to take up guns and organise killing people does not exist in our culture.
Now the Kosovo Roma are displaced people, but nobody talks about the Romani refugees from Kosovo as Roma. I have heard of many cases where Roma from Kosovo did not get proper aid from humanitarian organisations in Macedonia. For example I heard recently from a colleague that there were 3000 Roma at the Macedonian border and nobody was doing anything.
Yugoslavia is not the only place my complex identity has caused me problems. Europe as a whole wants a person to have one clear identity. In 1990 I went to Dublin to a conference on the education of Roma. I was using my Yugoslav passport. Even though I had an invitation letter from the Irish Ministry of Education and a return Dutch visa, they would not let me into Ireland. Then the border guard read the invitation and saw that I was attending a conference on Travellers and Gypsies. They handcuffed me and sent me back. I had a double disadvantage: I was Romani and Yugoslavian.
Roma are a multiethnic plural group and this is almost never recognised. In a place of ethnic conflict of the kind that Kosovo is now, our plurality could be put to good use in finding a peaceful solution. Instead we are forced to choose sides in a violent conflict.