Romani refugees from Kosovo in Albania
15 July 1999
From May 29 to June 6, 1999, I was in Albania as a volunteer for the aid organisation Relief International. At the same time, I acted as consultant to the European Roma Rights Center. My purpose was to document abuses suffered by the Romani refugees from Kosovo. Below is a description of my mission.
In the course of my work, I gathered information from Romani refugees in camps and host families, local Roma in Albania, ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo, representatives of Albanian Roma organisations, Albanian government officials, and employees and volunteers at non-governmental organisations (NGOs). I also sought information on the general background of the lives of Roma in Kosovo before the outbreak of the conflict; events leading up to their departure; the situation under which the Roma left their homes; details of their flight to the border. I also attempted to document information about what had happened to them since arriving in Albania: I documented which camps refugees had been in and when; if they have opted to stay in a host family: were they first in a camp; what were their motives for leaving it, or for refusing the possibility altogether; if government or NGO (or other) assistance is being offered and received in the host families; the current situation they are experiencing in camps or host families.
Interviews with Romani refugees were conducted in the camps and in host families. I worked alone with several interpreters, in several ways, repeating the interview several times with the interviewee and conferencing with the interpreter to re-check after the interview. I conducted interviews in the following three ways: in English/Albanian using a non-Albanian fluent in the language as an interpreter; in Italian/Albanian with an Albanian interpreter (I am fluent in Italian); in Italian/Romani using a Romani interpreter. Most interviews lasted at least one hour, some more, a few slightly less. All of my notes are written, and I have kept the notebooks. All documents and articles referred to are in my files, as well as numbers and contacts. The conditions in Albania often made interviewing refugees alone impossible, although my colleagues and I tried, wherever we could, to do so.
Relief International was extremely responsive to my mission and provided internal assistance that was of immeasurable help. In the Berat area, I worked with Ryan Stewart as an interpreter. The help and suggestions, which I received from him, as well as another colleague, John Gildersleeve, were an immense assistance, for which I am very grateful. Jordan Dey, programme co-ordinator in the Tirana office was inevitably responsible for accepting my proposal, without which I could not have proceeded in collaboration with Relief International. In Korça, Relief International provided me with an Albanian interpreter from the area. The Tirana-based organisation Amaro Drom, with the limitless availability of President Skender Veliu, his assistant Entela Bele and staff reporter Shpresa Muçollari provided me with innumerable contacts, an interpreter in Romani, and on-site support, for which I am very grateful.
I tried to gather as much information from as many sources possible to present the situation in full. To do this I spoke not only with the Romani refugees themselves, but to a plethora of other people who I thought could help present a more complete overview. While taking direct interviews with the Roma, I ran into a series of obstacles. First of all, Roma living in refugee camps in Albania are almost completely unwilling to speak openly about their identity, for fear of harassment or isolation. This is less true of those in host families, though even in the privacy of a family, there is a hesitancy to speak openly or use the Romani language. This fear is sustained when Albanian interpreters are used. The immense distrust and suspicion meant that I had to change methods constantly, ask indirect as well as direct questions and be attentive to the surrounding atmosphere. I also broadened my scope of interviewees to include non-Roma.
I WAS in the south-central Albanian town of Berat from May 29 to June 1. Berat
has five formal camps: Morava, Paranguaj, Kombinat, Fishpond 1 — still under construction — and Fishpond 2, also still under construction.
On May 30 I visited the Kombinat camp in Berat. Kombinat is a former textile factory. There are approximately 485 people, 70 families living there and it is managed by Médecins sans Frontiéres (Doctors without borders — MSF), who provided the electrical system. Caritas France has organised various children's activities. The town of Berat provides the majority of food supplies and MSF provides the funding to pay for a cook, who is a local.
I spoke with ethnic Albanian Kosovar refugees and the two Romani families presently residing there. I first visited the building on May 30, accompanied by two other Relief International workers. Shortly after entering the building we were greeted by a Kosovar refugee living in the building who is responsible for „management". Shaban, 28 years old, took us through the building. After some minutes, we were joined by his 17-year-old niece, Ms Drita Morina. Using an interpreter, I asked if there were any Roma residing in the building. The question was then restated using the Albanian word „ciganё«". At this point, Drita, who has been in Kombinat two months, is in the second class in high school and is from the village of Mališevo/Malesheva, responded: „Our Gypsies need to go away. They play music and sing. They keep us from feeling our grief. We have family members who have died. They will have to leave. Hopefully soon."
We then asked to be shown around the rest of the building and I managed to go around with only Ryan and without Shaban and the other ethnic Albanians with us. I was approached by a woman who asked me if I wanted to talk to „Roma" (she used the word „Roma"). We were taken to a room next to the camp manager's and conducted interviews with 26-year-old Ms Nazmie Aliaj and 50-year-old Ms Zenel Bajrami. My interpreter was Ryan. I have synthesized the conversation. The interview was conducted with questions and answers. I constantly looped back and rephrased for clarity.
Nazmie Aliaj told me, „We have been here for two months. On April 2, 1999, we left our village of Maciteva [municipality Suha Reka] with 39 others. We are Roma, but we don't speak any language other than Albanian. We had many children with us and we took turns carrying them on our backs. We left because the Serbs and the KLA were fighting around our village. Fighting started at 7am on April 2. We left before noon. Serbian soldiers dressed in camouflage uniforms were coming into the village taking away young men. I saw them marching behind two young boys, probably 12 or 13 years old. I didn't know the boys. When I heard shots far away I looked out and saw a soldier throw a grenade into my neighbor Zenel Bajrami's house. The house caught fire in front of my very eyes. Then they threw one into mine from the back. That is when we ran."
Zenel Bajrami told me, „I was not at home when they set my house on fire. When I started towards my street and saw smoke, I knew it was too late, so we turned around. I was with my daughter-in-law, husband, son and two daughters." After approximately ten minutes of interviewing, camp manager Shaban entered the room. I was sitting with Nazmie Aliaj to my left, the interpreter Ryan to my right and other family members around the room. Zenel was crouched in front of me to my left. Nazmie, who was holding my arm, tightened her grip. Shaban crouched directly in front of us. I asked if he had finished with his business, and tried in many ways to have him leave without it being apparent. When it was obvious he would not go and that the atmosphere had drastically changed, I asked him whether he came from the same village as the Roma I was interviewing. Shaban replied, „Yes, I know this family." Then I asked how the rapport was amongst the villagers and whether the Roma and Kosovars in the village lived and worked together. Shaban replied, „We had no dark Gypsies in our village." Shaban's explicit meaning was unclear, although his intent to menace and silence the Roma present was understood by everyone. We left shortly thereafter, accompanied by Shaban to the car.
On May 31, I conducted an interview with Qerim Murteli from the organisation Amaro Drom. I spoke with Qerim with Ryan as my interpreter, although Qerim speaks rudimentary Italian as well. He told me, „We heard already before the NATO bombings that the situation of Roma in Kosovo was not good. The president of Amaro Drom, Skender Veliu, asked us to help organise host families for Roma afraid to go into camps. They are very distrustful even of us. They will not speak to us in Romani. There are 296 Roma families in the Morava camp, and many have opened their homes to the refugees. They keep their distance and are afraid. They say that they don't speak our language but I believe they do. When I speak to them in Romani, they answer me, but in Albanian. Many families came to us and said that they don't want to be in the camps because they feel unsafe. We would like to help more, but they are not accepting our offers of Roma schooling and cultural events that we organize here."
Later on May 31, the day after being accompanied to the Kombinat camp by Shaban, I returned unannounced with the sanitation engineer, John Gildersleeve, and Ryan. The previous day, Shaban, when alone with John, took him to review the toilets in the back, which are practically unusable now due to the horrific sanitation circumstances. While next to the public toilets, Shaban pointed out the „Gypsies" (using the English word) in the room next to the toilettes and this was the reason for my return. The family of nine there is from Djakovica, with one son who had been living living in Peć. I interviewed 63-year-old Mrs Tushe Noshja, 62-year-old Mr Ferdez Shkodra, 29-year-old Mr Sahar Shkodra, and 14-year-old Mr Shpёtim.
Mrs Tushe Noshja began talking seated next to me with Ryan on the other side. As I spoke with her, I asked her questions and below is a condensed version of our interview. I have left my questions in the text only to add clarity to specific comments that might otherwise seem out of place:
Mrs Tushe Noshja: „We heard planes flying low over our village on the night of April 2. We heard that they were NATO planes. Then the Serb military started to pour in around 5am. They were screaming at everyone to leave and follow our friends in the airplanes. My son, Sahar Shkodra, lives in Peć. He had come to visit us and he was there when the army came. Around 6am we heard a man yelling in Serbian 'get out or we will burn you out' and we heard an explosion."
Kate: „Did you see the [Serbian] army burning houses or throwing grenades?"
Mr Shpёtim: „There were two young soldiers dressed in camouflaged uniforms outside my window. I looked out and saw that they were throwing bottles. But the bottles had something in them and they caught fire when they were thrown. I ran to the other side of the house and told my grandmother that we had to leave."
Mrs Tushe Noshja: „We left the house with very little. The road was blocked with people escaping our village. We had a cart and two horses that we left at the border. The police took our passports before we left Gjakova [Djakovica]. They held us at gunpoint and laughed when we begged them not to shoot. My oldest son was beaten with a rifle butt and I was beaten with spokes that they pulled off of our carriage wheels. Our neighbour, 32-year old Bashkim was beaten until he fainted. I don't know what happened to him. We haven't seen him again. We came to Albania via Kukёs. They put us on a bus. I think they said that we would go to Germany. But then we came to Berat and the bus dropped us off at the first camp, Morava. We didn't like it and there was not enough food, so we came here. We have no problems here in this camp with other refugees. Our only worries now are getting enough food and waiting to go home."
Still on May 31, I visited the Morava camp in Berat. I spoke with two families. Seven people were in one tent and twelve in the neighbouring tent. They were seated outside when I approached them. I asked if we could go inside the tent where it was quieter and I could sit. As soon as I approached the tent with Ryan, we were surrounded by non-Romani inhabitants of the camp, so I tried to be very inconspicuous. The family I spoke with consisted of 46-year-old Mrs Nazlie Tepeku, 51-year-old Mr Ali Tepeku, their sons — 20-year-old Qazim, 17-year-old Nexhat, 16-year-old Basri and 14-year-old Hazbi, and their daughter, 19-year-old Nebahate.
There were also four boys there who had joined the families in their flight after having being abandoned on the road or orphaned: 8-year-old Emurone, 7-year-old Leotrim, 10-year-old Sabrie and 9-year-old Zaide. None of them would speak about the circumstances under which they had lost or been separated from their parents. The Tepeku family said they knew them from before and did not know of their parents' whereabouts, but had found them on the road outside of Prizren with fifteen other children. Mr Ali Tepeku told me: „We come from the town of Gadime in the Lipjan municipality. At about 2:15pm on April 13 around twenty tanks pulled into the streets of our town. There were soldiers walking next to the tanks and behind them. We had just finished eating lunch. The plates were still on the table. A neighbor came and said that soldiers had announced in the cafe that we were all to go home to Albania and that we could go with our NATO friends. Soon after that there was a banging on our door. I opened it and there were three men in uniform there. They were angry and insulting. They had on police uniforms with mixed colors of white, yellow and green. They told us that President Milošević didn't want us."
I then asked them if the police officers said anything to them concerning the fact that they are Roma. There was then much discussion and looking around, I watched as two of the teenage boys walked out. Then Mr Tepeku said, „No, they didn't say anything about that. We are Albanians. We don't speak Romani."
He continued: „We left on April 13. It took us two days and one night to get to the border, four days to get to Kukёs. We had a four-room house. A very beautiful house. When we left, we saw some houses in our village on fire. We packed in less than half an hour and the seven of us went with horse and carriage. When we got to the border we had to throw many things away. In fact, many had done the same. There were thousands of people on the road from our village to the border. From our town alone there were 2,500. The road was so congested it was hard to move. When we got to the border the Serbs took our passports and threw them away and told us to go to NATO. We went to Kukёs for two weeks and have been here in Morava for seven."
On June 2, I travelled to Korça and met with Arben Kosturi, local representative of Amaro Drom. He provided me with an overview of the refugee situation from their arrival until present and with his help, I was also able to conduct interviews using an interpreter from Romani to Italian. Mr Kosturi told me of tensions in a temporary camp which had been established in a sports centre called Palatti i Sportit:
At the beginning of the refugee influx, around the 2nd week in April, 1999, the mayor of Korça, Mr Dionis Kotmilo, along with three other local representatives came to my house to ask for my help. They said that a group of around forty Romani families totalling approximately 160 people had just arrived at the Pallatti i Sportit temporary holding centre for Kosovo refugees and they were concerned for their well-being. Though the families denied that they were Roma, the relief workers and local officials said that they believed they were Roma and asked if I would come along and speak with them. They also predicted Kosovars would attack the Roma in the makeshift camp. When I got to the Pallatti i Sportit, the families hid themselves. Some refused to see me at first and all of them refused to speak Romani. I overheard Kosovars telling a young Romani boy, 'What are you doing here? You aren't really a refugee, you are a criminal.' This boy was no more than eight years old. At that point, I decided to try and find them alternative housing.
We arranged for the first arrivals to stay with various Romani families in Korça. When the second influx arrived a week later, we did the same. But they were amongst the non-Romani refugees for some days and definitely felt intimidated. One volunteer noted that they were not receiving assistance or food, either because of intimidation or refusal. I'm not sure if they were refused, but the relief organisation there didn't respond when we pointed out that they were perhaps scared and should be called up or sought out to receive their portions. More than a month and a half passed before the families that I saw almost daily felt secure enough to open up to me. They know I am Romani, that we have a school here for Romani children and an organization that arranges events and assistance. But they were too afraid to speak with me about what had happened in Kosovo.
I have overheard many Kosovar refugees saying that they should kill the Roma for siding with the Serbs. When I realized the possibility of extreme violence and murder, I started to say to people, — If you don't talk to me, who can you talk to? And if you don't talk to me, no one will know the truth.' Then they began to tell me the methods the Serbs used. The Serbian military have several ways of putting Roma in the middle. The first is forced recruitment. They arrive in a village with the uniforms ready and recruit at gunpoint. People who refused were shot.
According to the interviews I conducted, especially intense forced recruitment of Roma by Serbs took place in the areas of Priština, Kosovska Mitrovica and Djakovica. One of the families most obviously distressed at being interviewed in Berat is from Djakovica. I was able to substantiate threats of shootings and heard reports of actual shootings during interviews with Roma who had fled Kosovo. Mr Kosturi additionally stated that Serb police had gone through towns and placed a cross with an 's' at both ends on the doors of houses, signifying that the Roma living there are loyal. „But when they bomb and burn the town, they treat Roma the same as the Kosovars," he told me, „So, as they escape together, the Kosovars remember them as enemies." Mr Kosturi also said he had heard allegations that Romani children were sent out to areas along the Albanian border to see if areas were mined. I saw one nine-year-old Romani boy who had reportedly been sent ahead of a Serb unit to act as a human mine-sweeper. He would not talk with me and showed definite signs of trauma — shaking, stuttering and constantly looking around as if followed, even in his host-family home.
On June 3, still in Korça, I interviewed a Romani man named M.D. from the town of Uroševac near Priština. The interview was conducted in a back parking lot in a closed car. M.D. was afraid of speaking anywhere else. He told me:
I have a wife and four children. In our town — Ferizaj [Uroševac] — we had a Romani school organised with three different classes, sixty pupils and two teachers. They taught language, culture and music. The school was called 'Bishupanchto Maj', which means „Twenty-fifth of May". Once a week we had a thirty minute broadcast from Priština called „Avutnipe", which means „the future". The ethnic Albanians of Kosovo didn't like the television programme or the school. They told me that the Albanians need and deserved schools, but not the Roma. Many people told me this directly to my face — shopkeepers, people in shops and bars. We all knew it and heard it, but we ignored it as much as we could.
The Serbian army would come to villages and take us, the men, away into the army. My friend, Haziz Bunjako was shot when he refused. He was 32 years old. I saw his body on the ground as the soldiers walked away. My brother is now in Germany because he escaped after being threatened at gunpoint.
We left Ferizaj before the tanks pulled in. We heard they were on their way so we took what we could and went towards the train station. Since there was no train we took a bus to Skopje, Macedonia. Forty minutes out of Ferizaj we passed a huge military camp. They were Serbs. First we arrived in Blace in Macedonia and we wandered around the area for four days. We heard from other Roma that the camp was not friendly. We came to Korça after having travelled seven days after leaving our home. We first went to the Pallatti i Sportit together with 30 other Roma. Then we were settled in the camp Qatrom. I have only been here in the 17th quarter of Korça for seven days in a house. When we got to the camp in Qatrom, we stopped speaking our Romani. We speak Romani now only very rarely. We are scared because we know that we are outnumbered and there is a lot of hatred against us. If we don't talk, and hide who we are, we think we might be safe.
I think almost two months passed before I spoke Romani here. I only feel safe speaking Romani with Arben Kosturi. Even at home together we don't speak it much. I want to go back, though I don't know if it will ever be possible. I am thinking now, too, that Albanians here are nicer than the Albanians in Kosovo where we came from. Roma here don't seem scared like we are.
I was in the Albanian capital Tirana on June 1 and June 5, and it was there that I met with Amaro Drom President Skender Veliu. The interviews were conducted in Italian/Albanian with the assistance of project co-ordinator Entela Bele, with notes taken by myself and staff reporter Shpresa Muçollari. Mr Veliu made available to me testimonies which he had taken from Romani refugees from Kosovo. The office has all testimonies and related documents archived in their Tirana headquarters. I found him to be an invaluable contact and resource. Mr Veliu told me:
When the first refugees from Kosovo arrived we weren't sure how many Roma were amongst them. I had already heard that there was a danger of violence against Roma after Luan Koka, president of Kosovo Roma said, in a speech he gave during the negotiations in Rambouillet, France, that the Roma supported the Serbs.
Basically, we are between two fires. Our first and biggest step is to have the Roma refugees even admit that they are Roma. We are glad that you are here because we wondered if anyone was even aware of how terrified the Romani refugees are. They are even scared of us.
The first influx into Tirana was in April. Forty-one families were put in a temporary shelter. When we went there, families came to us immediately and said that they wanted to go to host families, not camps. We understood that they were Roma and they said so. They asked us to help them with embassy assistance to leave Albania. At that point, we realised that there would be lots of difficulty understanding who was coming, going and their story, so we began carefully documenting the numbers of refugees, along with a number of facts about the refugees such as place of origin. We have documented 860 Romani refugees in Albania. That figure does not include those who have not registered with us.
When we began to realize how precarious the situation is, we immediately compiled as many facts as possible, began to assist the Roma ourselves, and then took our initial information to the NGO central information point here in Tirana. We also hand-delivered, faxed, and sent a report by registered mail to many organisations, because we feel that these organisations should work together. No one in Tirana responded, including the UNHCR. As the leader of Amaro Drom I feel the weight of this non-acceptance. But we feel that our obligation is to continue to work on concrete matters. When the war finishes in Kosovo, it won't finish for the Roma.
On June 6, I interviewed Alex Jones of the organisation Care International's „Mobile Assistance Program" at the Tirana airport, shortly before I left Albania. He provided me with further information concerning the situation of Romani refugees in Albania:
I have been working with Care International's Mobile Assistance Program since May 21st. Our task is to identify people slipping through the aid net and provide search and relief assistance. Through talking with interpreters and with other workers in camps I have noticed that there is a bias that identifies Roma with Serbs and Serb police.
In the camp called Shining Hope in Fier, approximately 80 kilometres southwest of Tirana, there was a case of an 11-year-old Romani boy badly beaten by other refugees in the camp. He was hurt so badly that he had to be hospitalised. He was taken under the protection of the American military contingent. He was beaten because he claimed his father was a 'Yugoslav' policeman. He said that he had been caught up in the refugee convoy and brought along against his will. We arranged a UNICEF psychologist to evaluate his mental condition. He was then placed in the custody of MSF. If this is true, then he will be sent back to Serbia under International Committee of the Red Cross mandate. If not, he will need some other form of professional treatment due to his unstable mental condition. The UNHCR would not touch him until they established whether he was an unstable Romani boy or a Serb sympathiser. The general attitude of our Kosovar workers, the refugees who help us as interpreters and by providing other forms of assistance, is that Roma are not a part of the authentic refugees and do not have a right to be in the camps and receive 'their' emergency relief supplies.
There is very little awareness amongst the more than 95 NGOs presently working in Albania on the refugee crisis, and no efforts by NGO representatives to contact the Romani organisation in Tirana, Amaro Drom. At the Tirana NGO information centre located in the famous Pyramid building in the centre of Tirana there is a vast amount of information regarding everything from women's clinics to child-friendly camps. Information provided by Amaro Drom had not been distributed or presented, and their contact number and address was not included in the list of NGOs handed out free to anyone who goes there and to all other NGOs. The copy I have includes everything from a group called Balkan Sunflowers to a student's club. Skender Veliu told me that when he had approached these organisations, he had found no willingness to collaborate or utilise the information Amaro Drom has collected. I also found that some employees and volunteers working with the various organisations involved in the refugee crisis are not embarrassed to make blatantly racist remarks about Roma.
On June 8, the International Herald Tribune ran an article by David Rohde, the headline of which read, „Seeking Revenge, Mob Beats Gypsies in Camp." The article, despite its headline suggesting concrete evidence, describes a chaotic mob who beat Roma refugees, including a 7-year-old boy, in a frenzy of ethnic hatred fired by accusations of collaboration with Serbian militia. No direct evidence of collaboration set off the attack.
It is obvious that upon repatriation — which is already underway after the recent accord — there is the likely danger of vendetta and retaliation. There is a vital rumour that describes Roma as a group as sympathisers, spies and murderers. Violence and the fear of violence permeates the Romani refugees outside of Kosovo. Upon return, there is a risk of increased violent attacks reaching an uncontrollable level.
Ms Rejan Rustemović
Ms Rejan Rustemović (20) comes from Letovica, souht-easter Kosovo. The ERRC interviewed her on May 25, 1999, in Štip, Macedonia:
I come from Letovica, near Bujanovac, close to the Macedonian border in Kosovo. We used to hear continuously from the people in our village and the media that the Serbian police and the Serbian military expelled the Albanians from their homes. Nevertheless, we ignored it because life in our village was going on normally and everything was fine.
On April 25 1999 the Serbian police and the Serbian military went into our village. They came with tanks, cannons and other military vehicles. They told us to leave our homes immediately. One soldier told us, "You'd better get away from here if you want to stay alive." They did not let us take even our most essential things. All of us villagers began to run into the forest, towards the Macedonian border. The police and the military were shooting at us as we were running. Some people fell on the ground, some were injured on various parts of the body, some got broken arms. Yet we continued to run through the forest. Running away, I became separated from my mother and my sisters.
I was running away with a friend of mine who had a baby, which I took to carry to help my friend. Running with the baby, I was caught by a Serbian soldier wearing field uniform. He hit me with a gun on my shoulder, and the baby fell from my arms. The soldier ordered me not to take the baby, and just go without it. However, somehow I managed to get back to the baby in the crowd, I took it and started to run with the others. When we arrived to the Yugoslav side of the border the Serbian police and the Serbian military required money from everyone in order to let us go across the border peacefully. My family gave 3000 German marks [approximately 1,500 euros], nevertheless they still verbally abused and blackmailed us. We had no documents at all, and crossed the border illegally.
In Macedonia, we spent one night in Kumanovo and the next day we went to Štip to my uncle Ševki Sulejmanov. We were reported to the police as refugees.