Roma from Kosovo victimized in the Serb-Albanian ethnic conflict

05 January 1999

"We ran away from both Albanians and Serbs", said Mr Sait Aljija, a Romani refugee from Kosovo, to the Belgrade-based Vreme magazine. Even though the conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbs remains in world headlines, the plight of the Kosovo Romani minority caused by both groups is still out of the media's eye. The number of Romani victims is increasing. One corpse found among thirty-four other bodies at the Radonjičko Lake near Djakovica, Kosovo, was identified as that of a Romani man from a neighbouring village allegedly killed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), according to Vreme of September 26, 1998. Serbian Prime Minister Mr Mirko Marjanović stated on September 28 that, as of that date, 249 people had been kidnapped by the KLA, among them ten Roma. On October 3, Belgrade Radio B92 reported that the Serbian police had found two bodies in the vicinity of the village of Klina, central Kosovo, supposedly belonging to two local Romani men who were believed to have been kidnapped by armed ethnic Albanians during the clashes in the summer. Three Romani men, Mr Gani Gusani (50), Mr Ilmi Gušani (26) and Mr Basri Gušani (23), were shot dead by the KLA on December 28, in Kosovska Mitrovica, central Kosovo, according to Beta news agency. The Belgrade-based Democratic Association of Roma (Demokratsko udruženje Roma) informed the ERRC that the interviews they conducted with displaced Roma from Kosovo included records of physical violence against Roma by both the Albanian and the Serb side. ERRC sources in Priština claim that a number of Roma from Kosovo who had fled to Serbia were forced to return to Kosovo, as they were harassed by Serbian police and not allowed to make a living through trade.

In Kosovo, representatives of the Romani community took the side of the Serbian authorities. Roma and other small Kosovar minorities like Turks, Gorani and "Egyptians" were involved in peace negotiations on the initiative of the Serbian government. The Temporary Executive Council for Kosovo and Metohija, founded by the Serbian government on October 3 with the aim of normalising life in the region, included a Romani Secretary for Information — Mr Bajram Haljiti, editor of the Roma program in Radio Television Priština. Another instance of the political use of Roma by Serb authorities was the Draft of the Framework for Political Self-governance in Kosovo. This document was instantly rejected by the main ethnic Albanian political parties, whilst supported by minor parties and national associations of various ethnic groups from Kosovo, in a declaration signed on November 25 in Priština; one of the signatories was Mr Ljuan Koka, representative of the National Community of Roma in Kosovo. According to the Belgrade-based daily Politika of November 26, Mr Koka claimed that the association numbers 150,000 Roma, around 8% of the two million inhabitants of the province. This figure was confirmed by the Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević in an interview with the Washington Post on December 13, while just until recently Serbian authorities claimed that non-Serb and non-Albanian ethnic groups together made up no more than 8% of the Kosovo population.

In the rest of Serbia, nevertheless, because of their Muslim religion and Albanian names, Roma from Kosovo are now being viewed with a suspicious eye and identified with ethnic Albanians by the Eastern Orthodox Serb majority. On September 2, Mr Dino Toplica, president of the Novi Sad Board of the Romani Congress Party (Romska kongresna partija) and a Muslim Rom originally from Kosovo, was arrested on his business agency's premises on charges of illegally dealing in foreign currency. Mr Toplica told the ERRC that four police inspectors took him to the Toplica family home but also, without any explanations, took along his seventeen-year-old son who happened to be in the office. The police searched the houses of both Mr Toplica and his brother, and took away three video cameras. After returning to Mr Toplica's office, the police confiscated the party documentation, address books, and records of social aid to Roma. After that they took Mr Toplica and his son, a minor, to the police station and separated them into two adjacent rooms. Handcuffed, Mr Toplica was questioned about his business activities but also on the numbers of Muslim Roma in Novi Sad, and whether he was involved in the arms trade. According to the statement which his son, A.T., gave to the Belgrade-based non-governmental organisation Humanitarian Law Center (Fond za humanitarno pravo), during the investigation the policemen forced the boy to kneel on the floor, slapped him many times and beat him with a truncheon. The father and son were separately released six hours after the time of arrest. The police never produced any documents supporting the arrest, or contacted Mr Toplica after the incident. Mr Toplica decided not to press charges against the police officers in question, as he feared that the current witch hunt atmosphere against alleged enemies of the state in Serbia would only turn against him. He also asked the ERRC not to interview his son on the incident — Ms Remzije Toplica confirmed that their son is still emotionally shattered by the brutal experience.

The recent wave of racially motivated violence in Serbia against people perceived as ethnic Albanians got its first tragic victim from the majority population. According to the weekly Vreme of November 7, in the town of Čačak, central Serbia, two skinheads severely beat Mr Vitko Dekić, a Serb from Kosovo, believing he was a Kosovo Albanian falsely identifying himself. The man was hospitalised and died as a consequence of the beating three days later. (Beta, Demokratsko udrusenje Roma, ERRC, Fond za humanitarno pravo, Politika, Radio B92, Romska kongresna partija, Vreme, Washington Post)

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