Move on: Roma refugees from Kosovo in Montenegro

05 September 1999

Tatjana Perić

On behalf of the ERRC, I conducted a field mission in Montenegro from July 16-21, with the primary aim of collecting testimonies of Roma from Kosovo who found refuge in the southern Yugoslav republic, and introduce myself to the overall picture of their status as displaced persons in Montenegro. During the trip, I visited the municipalities of Tivat, Bar, Ulcinj, Nikšić, and the capital Podgorica. I conducted interviews with Roma refugees from Kosovo, who testified on cases of abduction, physical abuse and rape. All the Roma refugees interviewed either personally saw or heard later that their property in Kosovo had been looted and set on fire. I also interviewed local Romani and non-Romani activists, and Montenegrin and international organisations and authorities in charge of refugees.

At the time of my visit to Montenegro, the number of displaced Roma from Kosovo in the region was estimated at least 10,000, a vast majority of which - around 8500 - were in Podgorica. Vrela Ribnička settlement is an ethnically mixed neighbourhood on the outskirts of Podgorica, with 3000 Romani inhabitants. At the time of my visit, it had grown by 3000 persons, as it had been receiving an influx of Romani refugees from Kosovo since March last year. The latest wave in mid-July brought another 1800 Roma, mostly from the Kosovo villages of Obilić and Kosovo Polje, but also including hundreds of Kosovo Roma whom the local police forced to move from the coastal town of Bar (for more information on this case, see the "Snapshots from around Europe" section in this issue). At that time, about five new families were arriving at the camp every day. The majority of the newcomers were being placed in the camp; the rest went to private houses. The camp has just under 200 tents, provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These are set up on two sides of the dusty road from Podgorica toward the village of Tuzi, near the city garbage dump. Living conditions in the camp are inhumane - there is no electricity, no water and no sewage system. The tents are set very close to each other, making it difficult to move between them. Movement is especially difficult at night, as there are no street lamps. The lack of water makes the danger of an epidemic very real - the UNHCR reported an unspecified number of tuberculosis cases among Roma in the camp, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 21. The only medical aid offered in the camp consisted of occasional visits by doctors from the Podgorica clinic.

As several international organisations are active in the camp, humanitarian aid is brought into the camp regularly and is distributed by the activists of the Association of Roma in Montenegro, who also take care of the registration of refugees and all practical aspects of camp maintenance. At the front-end of the camp there is a bar owned by Isen Gaši, president of the Association. The bar serves simultaneously, at present, as the office of the association, a warehouse for the aid, and a distribution center. The quantities and the quality of aid received were considered satisfactory for the moment. However, a local NGO activist who wished to remain anonymous expressed concern that this situation was only temporary. The aid was sent for ethnic Albanians, and since most of these returned to Kosovo, no new aid was arriving: "Now that there is no one else around, Roma can get some leftover aid as well."

Many of the Roma in the camp had had to move several times since they left Kosovo. The story of the 46-year-old Mr O.T. from the town of Obilić was only one of many:

"I saw ethnic Albanians beating Roma and setting Romani houses on fire in our village. Our whole mahala decided to leave together one day after KFOR arrived. We took a bus to Niš, Serbia, and after two nights in the reception center in the Hotel Nais, the authorities of the center sent all of us Roma to the nearby village of Merušina, which was a kind of a refugee center for Roma from Kosovo. On our third night in Merušina, the police arrived from Niš and threatened us with force to go back to Kosovo, to the town of Kosovo Polje, as it was allegedly safer than other places. It was obvious that they were getting rid of the Roma - they put us onto ten buses, and in the only bus for the Serbs there were less than twenty people. In Kosovo Polje they put us all into a school building with several thousand other Roma. KFOR took care of the camp, but we did not feel safe and all of us from Obilić once more decided to leave for Serbia together. This time we went to Kruševac in Serbia, where we were warmly received by the local Roma. We did not get any humanitarian aid however, and we lived at our hosts' expense. After five or six days we decided to leave for Bar, as we heard about the ships taking Roma to Italy. For two days we slept in the park, asked around, waited for the ship, and then the police arrived and kicked us out. So we came to Podgorica, and I have no idea what we will do next."

Some Roma who arrived to the camp recently testified of physical abuse they had suffered from ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The 18-year-old A.S. from the village of Donji Petrić near Peć told me how he was beaten by ethnic Albanians on July 12: ?ere were only Roma living in our village, and none of us took part in any of the armed groups, Serbian or Albanian. We continued doing our own work, and we stayed in the village after the Serbian army withdrew from the area because we thought there was no reason for us to fear the return of Albanians. We were wrong - soon they began to harass us, and Romani families started leaving the village. We were the last ones there. On July 12, around 11 in the morning, three ethnic Albanian men came into our house. They were wearing camouflage uniforms and had arm bands with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) logo on them. They told us they were looking for weapons, but we did not have any. In front of my whole family of twelve they started twisting my arms in order to make me confess that we had guns. They searched me and took the 500 German marks that I had in my pocket. "You probably stole this," they said, "and you will have to give us 2000 more if you want to stay alive." We had no more money, so the Albanians took me in their car to the former police station in Kličina, which was now a KLA headquarters. The station was full of men in the same uniforms. They took me to a room where around fifteen of them beat me with truncheons and metal bars all over my body. "Did you steal?" they asked, and they beat me continuously until five o'clock in the afternoon. Then they took me to sit in front of the police station; my nose was bleeding and I vomited blood too. Around four or five hours later they released me, saying that tomorrow I had to come to the police station again and bring the weapons I supposedly had. I hitch-hiked home, and that night my family moved out of Donji Petrić."

Many spoke about the hardships of their relatives who remained in Kosovo: "My brother N.D. stayed in the village of Budisavci with his wife and nine children," 48-year-old Ms G.F. from Klina told me. "The day before yesterday a Romani woman who arrived from that village told me that a week ago my brother had been beaten by the KLA, and that now he does not dare leave his house anymore." Mr L.J., a 47-year-old Rom from the Demova Mahala settlement in Peć, told me that in their neighbourhood there were cases of Roma forced to do work for ethnic Albanians: "Albanians would take Roma to do manual labour for them - work in their houses or stables. Roma were not paid, and sometimes the Albanians would beat Roma. For example, they beat my neighbour C.A."

Despite the stories that were going around, some Roma still decided to go back to Kosovo and see if they could live there again. "My mother and aunt decided to go back to Istok, where we lived. They would not let me come along," said 24-year-old Mr O.I. "First we went to Ulcinj, where many of our Albanian neighbours stayed as refugees, to see when they would return. My mother and aunt joined that convoy, but they went in a separate taxi which we paid for. They arrived in Istok, but just when they got into the town, they saw houses belonging to two of my uncles on fire. My mother rushed to our house and saw our Albanian neighbours taking our furniture out. "What are you doing here, Gypsy woman?" they shouted. They accused her of working with the Serbs and said I had been in the army, and they threatened to kill her. Another Albanian neighbour intervened and took my mother to his house, where she and the aunt spent the night. They saw that after the looters took everything they could from our house, they set it on fire."

Due to the proximity of the Albanian border, Roma in the camp live in constant fear of the attacks of ethnic Albanians, despite regular police patrols. According to several inhabitants of the camp, a violent incident took place on the night of July 17, when a man driving slowly through the camp late at night was mistaken for an attacker. Out of fear, a group of youngsters who noticed him stopped the car, dragged the driver out, beat him up and damaged the vehicle. The man, who turned out to be a Montenegrin, reported the incident to the police. The same night four policemen arrived and, using force, took away one of the Roma who had reportedly taken part in the incident. At the time of my visit, on July 18, the young man was still in detention; when I tried to investigate the incident further, both the Romani refugees and the local Roma running the camp appeared unwilling to provide more information, and downplayed the importance of the incident.

The second largest town in Montenegro, Nikšić, had the second highest number of Romani refugees at the time of my visit there on July 21. The Romani settlement Budo Tomović is home to 1000 Roma, the other 1500 living in the settlements of Pod Trebjesom, Gračanica and Brlja. To these are added about 500 Romani refugees, the most recent ones arrived from the village of Hereć, near Djakovica, the night before I visited Nikšić.

"There were only Roma and Egyptians living in our village, so when the Serbian army left Kosovo we thought we would not have any problems," said 26-year-old Ms Š .Z., "but when the Albanians returned, they told us we had to leave as we 'did not belong to Kosovo.'" According to a number of villagers now in Nikšić, the whole village was harassed on numerous occasions every day and night by both uniformed and civilian-clad ethnic Albanians from the neighbouring villages. The attackers looked for Romani men in order to arrest them. They also beat women, extorted money from the Roma and looted property from Romani houses. "The harassment began the day the Serbian army left. Sometimes various groups of men would come into my house four of five times the same day. They beat me severaI times," said 37-year-old Ms T.Z. "Once they asked me where I had stolen all the things that were in my house. I was insulted - I worked in Germany and earned it all myself, so I started taking the warrantees for the technical equipment that I was keeping, to prove to them that it was all mine. But they tossed my warrantees away and told me, "we don't need your papers, but your things", and they beat me with their hands and hit me with the butts of their guns." At the time of the interview, bruises on Ms T.Z.'s torso were still visible.

In mid-July, at two o'clock in the morning after a day of especially strong abuse, the Roma from Hereć reportedly all decided to seek protection at the local KFOR office of the Italian army. Ms Š .Z. gave me the following account, corroborated by a number of other refugees from the same village:

"The Italians told us to stay with them, and four days later they had no more food for us, so they told us to go to the closest larger town of Djakovica, as there were many other Roma there and we would be safer. We did not want to go to Djakovica, especially since it was 16 kilometres away and we could have been attacked by the KLA on the way there. We wanted to go home, and we did. The Italians gave us some papers saying that no one could harm us and they told us we would be safe if we showed the papers. We did not believe them. We spent only one night in our homes, and that night six armed ethnic Albanians came to our house and told us that those of us who went to KFOR had to leave. 'KFOR is not going to be here forever,' they said. In the morning, three families decided to leave for Montenegro - we sold a cow for 800 DEM to pay to be taken out of Kosovo with a van, we packed only the essential things and left."

At the time of my visit, these three families with eighteen members from Hereć had joined some of their other relatives who had come to Nikšić a month ago. There was enough place indoors only for the children - the adults slept out in the open.

"DO YOU KNOW WHAT THEY WILL DO WITH US NOW?" - AN EPILOGUE

In all the communities I visited during this field trip, there was one question that the Roma refugees interviewed always asked: "Do you know what they will do with us now?" For the Roma from Kosovo, the history of inability to have control over their own fate opened a new chapter - displacement - that is not near its end yet. The vast majority of the Roma interviewed said they did not want to return to Kosovo and felt there is no place for them in the impoverished and politically unstable Montenegro either; many hoped to make it somehow to the West. None of the authorities contacted in Podgorica were able to give an answer on the future of the Kosovo Roma in Montenegro. Mr Djordjije Šćepanović, Commissioner for Refugees and Displaced Persons in Montenegro, whom I met on July 20, insisted that their government is only able to assist those displaced from Kosovo for a while and accordingly assigned those who registered with local authorities the status of "temporarily displaced persons", in hope they will be eventually resettled in third countries. On the other hand, the representative of the UNHCR Podgorica office stated that they have no mandate to assist the Kosovo Roma with resettlement programs, as they are citizens of Yugoslavia and - though displaced - are still inside their own country. Apparently, everyone hoped that Roma would be taken care of by someone else. As of August 31, no western European country had volunteered a safe haven for Kosovo Roma.

Roma in Montenegro

NUMBER Out of a total population of Montenegro of 615,035, according to the last census conducted in former Yugoslavia in 1991, only 3282 persons declared themselves Romani. Many other Roma officially registered as ethnic Albanians, Muslims or Yugoslavs. Local NGO activists estimate that the realistic number of Roma in Montenegro is between 20,000 and 30,000, of whom at least 7000 live in and around the capital Podgorica. Most Montenegrin Roma are Muslim, originally from Kosovo, and have Albanian names. The territorial distribution of Roma in Montenegro is uneven - very few Roma live in the north of the republic, and the concentration is highest in the central towns of Podgorica and Nikšić. Smaller numbers of Roma live in Ivangrad, Bar, Tivat and Herceg Novi.

EDUCATION At the moment there are practically no Romani high school students in Montenegro, and very few Romani children graduate from primary school. Primary school education is compulsory in Yugoslavia, but authorities in Montenegro do not enforce this rule with respect to Roma.

EMPLOYMENT Roma in Montenegro are economically a very vulnerable group. The majority of Roma are unemployed; those who have jobs work mostly as street sweepers (180 Roma work for the communal services in Podgorica) or manual labourers. Some Roma are involved in small-scale trading of various goods like textiles, plastic ware, and cigarettes.

LEGAL STATUS The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the separate constitutions of Serbia and Montenegro give different legal treatment to Roma. In the Federal Constitution Roma are not recognised as an ethnic group, while in the Constitution of Montenegro Roma have the same rights and obligations as other "national minorities". The Constitution of Montenegro guarantees the protection of "national, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity" of national and ethnic groups.

CITIZENSHIP As is the case in most countries of former Yugoslavia, many Montenegrin Roma do not have citizenship, largely due to a lack of documents proving residence.

RACIALLY-MOTIVATED VIOLENCE AGAINST ROMA In 1995, according to reports, several hundred local non-Roma expelled the entire Romani population of the south-eastern town of Danilovgrad and burned down their settlement, in reprisal for the rape of a Montenegrin girl by a Romani boy (for more information on this case, see "Community Violence against Roma in Montenegro and the Inactivity of the State" in Roma Rights, Autumn 1998). Although promoting racial hatred is punishable under Article 134 of the Criminal Code of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, it was not applied in connection with the Danilovgrad pogrom; prosecutors charged one individual with endangering public safety, but charges were dropped about one year later.

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