Justice for Kosovo

31 January 2006

Claude Cahn

During the hot period of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, a particularly useful question was, “How is the situation?” Information about the conflict was subject to dispute over meaning among the parties to the conflict – which was everyone in the former Yugoslavia. As many have observed, the war itself became a struggle over the meaning of history in the region. Also, to the irritation of many from the former Yugoslavia, the wars of succession in Yugoslavia rapidly became globally discussed – many outside the former Yugoslavia took a keen and meaning-pregnant interest in the conflict. “How is the situation?” – a thoroughly meaningless phrase – was valuable in that it opened discussion on neutral terrain, to the best extent that that was possible. It implied no sympathy for one side or another.

In 1996, while waiting for a meeting at a Romani organisation in Vienna, I posed the question “How is the situation?” to a Romani musician from Serbia who was also waiting for a meeting. His response: “Lies, all lies.” This turned out to mean, upon further exploration, “Everything being said or written in the West about Slobodan Milosevic and the acts of the Yugoslav government is false propaganda driven by a diverse set of shadowy groups, including Freemasons and the Vatican.”

A segment of the Serbian and Kosovar Romani community, a group of people with a very sizable diaspora in Western Europe, supported the former regime. The reasons for this are complex, but comprise approximately the following: Tito’s Yugoslavia was a multi-national federation, guaranteeing equality to all within the Socialist framework. This was a first in the history of any entity on these territories. Socialist Yugoslavia also undertook special, promotional efforts with respect to Roma. The official histories included the Romani contribution to the partisan struggle during the civil war Yugoslavs fought under the cover of the second World War,1 and Romani newspapers and radio stations flourished, particularly in Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia. These facts forged a particular loyalty to Yugoslavia among Roma. It was widely perceived among Roma in the former Yugoslavia that a multi-national Yugoslavia would be a far better arrangement for Roma than any future potential status in a mono-ethnic state. The fact that anti-Romani atrocities had been committed by ethnic Albanians and ethnic Croats during World War II, and that these atrocities were very fresh in the memories of Roma in and from Yugoslavia, made this loyalty particularly vivid.

In 1989, the government controlled by Slobodan Milosevic suspended Kosovo’s autonomous status within the former Yugoslavia, ostensibly as a response to anti-regime rioting by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, but more crucially as part of an infusion of Serbian nationalism into the business of running the Yugoslav state. As Communism collapsed, the controlling authorities in Belgrade stayed one step ahead of nationalists throughout the Federation, by jettisoning the multi-national discourse of Socialist Yugoslavia, and turning to Serbian nationalism as a mobilising force. The consequences of these moves are now well known, and include that highest form of evil, civil war. A very significant part of the Serbian and Kosovar Romani communities – people who had particularly powerful psychological reasons for remaining blind to the disappearance of multi-national commitments at the state level and replacement of these with a blended version of Socialism and Serbian nationalism – preferred regime-loyalty as the possibility of remaining neutral effectively vanished. The alternative – making common cause with ethnic Albanian nationalists or allying explicitly with Albanian nationalist movements – was not attractive, and was in any case not on offer from the side of the Albanians, who were pursuing a highly exclusionary ethno-nationalist mobilisation.

Vocal support for the regime was easier for Serbian Roma not actually living in Kosovo proper (i.e., in the rest of Serbia), as well as for Serbian and Kosovar Roma in the Western European diaspora (as well as in Croatia and Slovenia). In Kosovo proper, the strategies adopted by Roma and others regarded as “Gypsies” were of necessity more complicated. While some took one side or the other (more often regime-loyalty), others pursued other options. A series of new ethnic identities – the Egyptians and Ashkalia – sprang to life on the basis of previous sub-group identities, apparently as an effort to negotiate a space on neither side of the incipient civil war.

Regime-loyalty had real implications. In the first place, in 1989, in the context of the abrogation of Kosovo’s autonomy, ethnic Albanians were purged from the Kosovo administration and replaced with those who remained regimeloyal – Serbs and Roma. Secondly, Roma came vocally to the support of the Milosevic regime in a series of demonstrations in Belgrade and elsewhere throughout the 1990s. Thus did Roma come to incur the enduring animosity of the Albanian nationalist cause, one of the most cohesive nationalist mobilisations seen in Europe since World War II.

The extent of Romani support for the Milosevic regime has not yet been examined, discussed or addressed within the Yugoslav Romani community, nor has the extent of the manipulation of Roma by the former regime been examined to any significant extent. Its impact on the diaspora has however been particularly powerful. On the night Milosevic fell in Autumn 2000, I was at a Serbian Romani wedding in Vienna. This was a thoroughly demoralised affair because the unimaginable was transpiring: on every television, hundreds of thousands of Serbs were demonstrating on the streets of Belgrade against the government. At a stroke, the fiction of more than half a century had come to pieces.

During the implementation by the Milosevic regime of “Operation Horseshoe” in Kosovo in the early months of 1999, Roma and others regarded as “Gypsies” in Kosovo played a role. The facts are not disputed: Roma assisted the Serbian police in plundering shops to supply the military action, and they assisted the police in burying the Albanian dead. There is no common ground on the interpretation of these facts however. Roma say that the forces of the state coerced them into assisting the military operation. There was no space for resistance. Albanians regarded these acts as further evidence that Roma and other “Gypsies” had allied themselves with the enemies of the Albanian nation.

Our first inkling of onset the single biggest catastrophe to befall the Romani community since World War II came on June 5, 1999, when a group of ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo in a refugee camp in Skopje, Macedonia, set upon a number of Roma in the camp and made a concerted effort to beat them to death, before camp authorities intervened. By mid-June, as the UN took control of the administration in Kosovo and NATO troops and returning ethnic Albanians flooded into the province, the ethnic cleansing of Roma and others regarded as “Gypsies”, along with Serbs, had begun.

In early July 1999, the ERRC sent two teams to Kosovo to document the unfolding events. One team, comprised of then-ERRC Board Member Rumyan Russinov, then-Research and Publications Director Deyan Kiuranov and then-Operations Director Ferenc Welsch, drove through Serbia to Pristina. I flew to Skopje, Macedonia, picked up frequent ERRC collaborator Martin Demirovski. Martin is Romani, but because he has very light skin, can pass for non-Romani. We hired a taxi and were dropped off in Prizren.

My memories of the period that followed remains for me the most enduring impression I have of the potential for human evil. That statement is not intended for the sake of melodrama. Kosovo in mid-1999 and for the years thereafter has been a collective human endeavor for ends completely devoid of the beneficent, the manifestation of a society founded on the principle of the violent eradication from the sphere of the present of anyone not belonging to one closely circumscribed ethnic group. Let me try to recount some of the events of those days.

The old Romani quarter of Prizren – Terzi Mahalla – had become something of a safe zone. Possibly because of lobbying by the prominent Prizren Romani personality Haxhi-Zulfi Merxha, or possibly simply due to the wisdom of the local German KFOR commander, a pair of KFOR soldiers had been stationed during the daylight hours, prominently at an intersection in the community. The residents of Terzi Mahalla were not completely immune to attack by Albanians, but Terzi Mahalla was safer than most places, and Roma displaced from villages around Prizren were flooding into the quarter.

One afternoon, while taking testimony from Roma who had been abducted and brought for “interrogation” and torture to one of a number of informal detention centres being operated by ethnic Albanians around Prizren at that time, Martin and I were approached by an older woman in the throes of calm, contained panic; her son had been kidnapped by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), taken to a detention centre, and held for a week. They had broken both his legs and released him to go back home to his village. If he told anyone, they said, they would kill him.

We decided to report the matter to KFOR, and to try to arrange for his rescue from the village. This proved more difficult than first imagined. We set off from Terzi Mahalla on foot through the streets of Prizren. We could not, however, walk with the old woman – Roma could not be seen in the company of “internationals”. Mrs. Jones – I will call her Mrs. Jones – walked around 40 metres ahead of us and we followed. A first KFOR unit sent us to the main barracks across town. Once we arrived there, we were told to wait at the gate until someone could see us. As the sun set, we were still waiting.

We decided to tell Mrs. Jones – a very traditional- looking Romani woman – to go home; we would come and get her in Terzi Mahalla in the morning and try again. As soon as we began to exchange words with her however (our first visible contact with Mrs. Jones since we had left Terzi Mahalla), we were surrounded by a mob of approximately 25 people shouting aggressively at us, and we were quickly separated from Mrs. Jones. By common agreement, I believe ordered by no one, but obeyed by all, contact between Roma and “internationals” was not going to be tolerated in the new Kosovo.

The next morning we persuaded the German KFOR commander to part with two soldiers and a van for the purposes of rescuing Mrs. Jones’s son. “Only for two hours,” he said. We drove to Terzi Mahalla, picked up Mrs. Jones, headed out of town, and promptly got lost. KFOR only had maps of Prizren written in Cyrillic script. The KFOR soldiers could not read their maps.

We eventually arrived in the village, which was completely bedecked with Albanian flags. The Romani quarter lay behind and above the village, however, and all roads there were blocked by parked cars. Mrs. Jones sat very low in the van. The two hours allotted by the German commander had by that time expired. The two soldiers – who were not a day over eighteen, clad in a number of inches of bullet-proof combat gear and “sweating like pigs” – were in favor of abandoning the mission. We reminded them that Mrs. Jones’s son was under a death threat. They grudgingly agreed to remain.

Eventually, we persuaded the owner of one of the cars to move it – by now the curtains of the whole village were twitching – but at the bottom of the hill leading to the Romani settlement, the road was impassable; the corpse of a horse lay halfway over a massive puddle. We got out of the van. “You first,” said one of the soldiers. I began to explain that, not being military, we had no experience with ground that was potentially mined. Should they not go first? No, we should go first, they maintained. The dispute was resolved by Mrs. Jones, who was already halfway up the hill. We cautiously followed, stepping in her tracks in the mud.

In the house lay Mrs. Jones’s son, a living bruise. His legs were not, as it turned out, broken, but he was completely incapacitated from a week of beatings, and he was terrified. One of the German KFOR soldiers began wailing and clutching his own head (I am not exaggerating). After some discussion, and after ascertaining that a KFOR helicopter was not available, the soldiers managed to persuade a Medicins sans Frontieres van to come and evacuate Mrs. Jones’s son. We set about the business of waiting. Outside the house, one of the KFOR soldiers said to me, “If any shooting starts, we’ll leave you here.”

After an eternity, the Medicins sans Frontieres van arrived, staffed by Albanian medical personnel. These began shouting at Mrs. Jones’s son in Albanian. The Germans also started shouting, because they were supposed to be back at base, and they wanted to get the evacuation over with. Our communication went as follows: I translated from German into English to Martin, Martin translated from English into Romani for Mrs. Jones, and she translated from Romani into Albanian for her son, who spoke only Albanian. This procedure was reversed in the other direction. For some reason, the soldiers never seemed to comprehend that there were language difficulties and kept repeating half-hysterically, “Tell him we go now, or we go without him.” The Albanian medical crew would also not stop shouting in Albanian. Pointing out that the victim had just been tortured for a week by Albanians and that shouting in Albanian was not a good idea prompted the response, “What do I care about politics?”

Eventually, Mrs. Jones, her son on a stretcher, the soldiers, ourselves and the medical personnel descended to the two vans and left the village. As we drove out of town, behind us we could see the entire Romani community following on foot. There was no way they were going to stay now that it was known that they had communicated with KFOR. Thus did we facilitate the ethnic cleansing of one village in Kosovo.

At the hospital in Prizren, we were summarily expelled from the KFOR van, which drove off in haste. Mrs. Jones’s son was brought into the hospital, where he was treated rudely by staff. The doctors let him know what they thought of him. If he had gotten a beating, he must have deserved it. By nightfall, he was in Terzi Mahalla, along with the rest of the village.

Mrs. Jones’s husband wanted to know what would happen to them, and when could he go back home? We advised him not to go home right now. He exploded. “I’m a musician. I played for Serbian weddings. I played for Albanian weddings. What do I care about politics?”

During this time, houses everywhere burned. For example, one or two houses burned down every night in the Aslanova Romani settlement in Prizren. The understaffed teenage German KFOR unit scrambled ineffectually after every latest case of Prizren’s combusting minority architecture, as houses burned first here, then there, in around the greater Prizren area, as everywhere in Kosovo. In Aslanova, most people said the perpetrators were from the surrounding Albanian neighborhoods. Martin and I went every morning to document the latest attacks. To get to Aslanova, we took a local taxi from the centre of Prizren. We usually could not manage to get rid of our taxi drivers after arriving. They stayed around to try to listen in on what the victims and witnesses were saying, and to tell us what our opinions should be. This inability of minorities to secure autonomy or privacy to speak, without fear or threat, characterised Kosovo then, as it characterises Kosovo now.

One day we went out to Djakovica/Djakove. On the way, we passed a house just as it went up in flames. We asked the driver to stop the car and went to look. Five Albanian teenagers were in the middle of setting the living room on fire. They were laughing and posed for pictures. “He was a good Serb,” they said.

When we got to Djakovica there were men driving around on flatbed trucks brandishing Kalashnikovs proudly. We spent the afternoon taking testimony from the family of Mr. Bekim Ljalja, a man who had been picked up off the street and had disappeared.2 He is dead; to this day he has not returned. We then went to meet a family who, the previous evening, had been relieved of all of their property by a group of armed men who terrorised them for most of the night. Three days later, we met the same family again in Aslanova in Prizren. The armed men had come back in the middle of the night, gang raped one of the women, and told the family they would be killed if they were still there 24 hours later. They were on their way to Italy. The eyes of the brother of the rape victim had become hard, grey and distant. He had been forced to listen to the rape from the next room.

The gap between events in Kosovo as they were actually transpiring on the one hand, and the ways in which they were being reported elsewhere on the other, was striking. Italy – a country to which many of the expelled Roma were fleeing – provided a particularly extreme example in this regard. From the beginning of the ethnic cleansing, the Italian media played shamelessly on popular anti-Romani sentiment in Italy. For example, a front-page article in the popular Italian weekly Panorama of August 22, 1999, was entitled “Mama, the Gypsies are Coming!” The title-page photograph showed a rusted boat overloaded with Romani refugees from Kosovo. The primary focus of the article was on “difficulties” associated with returning Roma speedily to Montenegro, where the ports from which Kosovo Romani refugees were fleeing were located. Another article, which ran in the daily Il Sole-24 Ore of August 31, 1999, expanded on the difficulties of returning Kosovo Romani refugees and emphasised that “the Roma were able to pay the high price of their illegal transportation thanks to the dirty money they received by burying both Serbian and Albanian victims in mass graves.” The daily Corriere della Sera went so far as to complain in a headline on July 22, 1999, that “The United Nations is Against Italy” because it was not assisting with the rapid expulsion of Kosovo Romani refugees.

It might be added here that from among the various KFOR commands stationed in Kosovo, the Italians had a particularly bad reputation. It was claimed by many that Italian KFOR, competent for, among other areas, the very nasty situation in Djakovica/Djakove, was actively collaborating with the Kosovo Liberation Army, at minimum by turning a blind eye to the existence named and widely known detention/torture centres. Nothing we saw in Djakovica/Djakove, where there appeared to be no law and order at all, led us to conclude that these allegations might be false.3

The ethnic cleansing continued throughout Kosovo, more-or-less unchecked, for the next years. It was punctuated from time-to-time by particularly revealing crimes, such as the killing in 2000 of four Ashkali men within 24 hours of returning, within the framework of a voluntary return program, to their homes in the village of Dashevc/Dosevac. For the most part, however, the ethnic cleansing has been maintained through subtler means, such as the destruction by grenade in the middle of the night of the foundations of houses being built for minority returns. No one misinterprets the message of such acts.

Over time, the above matters have been significantly complicated by the actions and inactions of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the fact of immunity from prosecution – and therefore from true accountability – for members of the administration. These issues are evident in the matters leading to ERRC filing, on September 2 of this year, a request for criminal investigation into the long-term exposure to lead poisoning of hundreds of displaced Roma in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica as a result of their placement in camps located in extremely toxic environments, events detailed at length in this issue of Roma Rights. The fact of implication of UN administrators in Kosovo in human rights abuses has complicated the ERRC’s work in Kosovo. Should we criticise the UN, knowing that this plays into the hands of Albanian nationalists seeking to discredit the UN administration? Will our criticism be misused by forces in the US and elsewhere which wish the UN only ill?

In recent years, nothing has happened. By this I mean that there is an international infrastructure, the staff of which come and go (often burning out fast), time passes, and little changes on the ground. Because the situation in Kosovo is durably bad as a result of the determination of its majority inhabitants to live in an ethnically pure state, the international agencies governing Kosovo took the decision to cease monitoring activities in Kosovo, thus effectively ending the flow of public information on the situation in Kosovo. Having expelled by vicious means the greater part of the minority communities from Kosovo and hounded the remains into an oppressed, self-distorting compliance, the ethnic Albanians now wait for independence, occasionally (when the independence agenda appears to be stagnating) provoking crises such as the March 2004 episode of mass anti-minority violence. The international powers comply. Commitments to ensure the voluntary return of all, in safety and dignity, to place of origin, are not seriously acted upon. Minorities seeking to return to their homes are told quietly by their once and future neighbors, “You can return. But don’t even dream of staying.”

Meanwhile, time passes. Because time passes, questions arise: six years have elapsed; surely things must be getting better; should it not be time for the Albanians to manage their own affairs?

Because so much time has passed, the West moves to expel the Kosovo Romani refugees. Six years have elapsed; it is time to go home. Surely things must be better there by now. The international governors of Kosovo comply with the wishes of those German officials whose sentiments are guided by the view that “the German people will never accept these Gypsies.” In April 2005, UNMIK officials signed a memorandum jointly with the German government, agreeing to the “forced return” of Ashkalia and Egyptians and certain categories of Roma. Other countries follow Germany’s lead.

The expellees tend not to stay. They prefer the risks of renewed flight than anything on offer in Kosovo.

There has been no justice in the matter of the ethnic cleansing. Even in the particularly striking crimes – such as the Dashevc killings noted above – perpetrators have not been prosecuted. The authorities claim that no one will talk, and that they have no leads, so they are powerless to act. At the same time, pressure is building on the remaining Ashkali families from Dashevc, currently in camps for the displaced in Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosove and Plementina/Plementin, to return to Dashevc. No one offers security guarantees, except the same people sheltering the killers, or possibly the killers themselves.

In the absence of any meaningful international commitment to justice for Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptians in Kosovo, the ERRC has attempted to fill a small part of a massive gap by monitoring to the best of our ability, engaging consultants when we could, sending field missions periodically and urging, as a core element of our longterm commitments, that the ethnic cleansing not be permitted to stand. To date, our efforts have secured little, because a system of powers – including a number of Western states, international institutions, and the ethnic Albanian Kosovar authorities – with the firm backing of the Kosovar Albanian public – has thwarted the fundamental right to justice for human rights harms.

It is time for justice for Kosovo. It is time for the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing to finally reap the consequences of their acts. Kosovo is not seriously prepared for any form of autonomous status until authorities there can demonstrate their commitment to a multi-cultural future for the province by prosecuting those who have persecuted minorities in Kosovo, among them Roma, Askalia, Egyptians and Serbs. These are mundane thoughts. They should be self-evident. At present, justice is so far from the agenda of the players concerned that it is hard to imagine that it will ever be delivered.


  1. To this day, settlements in Macedonia are called names such as "Sukri Sain", the name of one Romani partisan featured in the official histories.
  2. Information on this case, as well as extensive other materials from ERRC field research, were published in Roma Rights 2/1999, "Roma in the Kosovo Conflict", available at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=800, as well as in a compilation of ERRC materials on Roma rights in Kosovo for the year 1999, copies of which are available by contacting the ERRC.
  3. The reputations of individual KFOR commands are, it must be noted, not necessarily reliable. For example, British KFOR, responsible for, among other areas, Pristina, was widely praised for their professionalism, and it was often observed that decades of engagement in urban areas as a result of the situation in Northern Ireland meant that the British KFOR brought better training and skills to policing Kosovo. However, British KFOR watched during the wholesale destruction and looting by ethnic Albanians of the Romani settlements in Pristina.


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