The Roma of Kosovo

15 July 1999

Dimitrina Petrova

In the last month, the world media repeated over and over again the Kosovo Albanians' motivation for their pogroms against the Roma -- that Roma had taken the side of the Serbs and had participated in Serbian atrocities in the province during the war. Repeated so many times by so many journalists covering 'the Kosovo crisis' in the post-bombing weeks, this racist slander began to function as an acceptable explanation. In many publications, it stood as an implicit justification of the horrible crimes against the Kosovo Roma, perpetrated by Albanians on a mass scale and amounting to ethnically based persecution of the entire Kosovo Roma people. Numerous cases of killing, torture, abductions, rape, and other humiliating and degrading treatment were documented by the ERRC in Kosovo. We observed hundreds of Roma houses being burned, thousands of Roma driven out of their homes and settlements and scattered in improvised camps. Looting of Romani houses by Kosovo Albanians has been endemic. In broad daylight, in the presence of KFOR troops, who were standing by, looking the other side and pretending that nothing was happening, countless tractors, trucks and cars have been driving off Romani houses, piled with furniture, TV sets, refrigerators, washing machines and all sorts of household items.

The recent ERRC fact-finding mission in Kosovo found that the allegations of complicity of the Roma in the Serb atrocities against ethnic Albanians during the NATO bombing campaign are false. Some Roma individuals testified that they had been forced to work for the Serbian military and paramilitary in the province; there were also individual Roma serving in the Yugoslav army and police, and some of them may have perpetrated crimes against ethnic Albanians. However, this does not render truth value to the generalising statement that all Roma in Kosovo participated in the ethnic cleansing on the side of the Serbs. Roma themselves deny such accusations. And there is no credible factual basis on which such complicity can be confirmed.

Indeed, if Roma had been perceived as loyal to the Serbs, why then thousands Roma joined the escaping ethnic Albanian refugees during the NATO bombing? There is abundant evidence collected by several organisations in many places that Roma were evicted from their houses at the same moments and during the same operations as ethnic Albanians. Others left due to generalised fear of the violence and the destruction around them, but they left for Macedonia and Albania, even though, prior to the bombing, numerous Roma had already fled Kosovo and sought refuge in Serbia and Montenegro.

Throughout the 'Kosovo crisis', Roma have been rejected and harassed by both Serbs and Albanians. They were treated as second class refugees among the Kosovo Albanians, and pushed back to Kosovo by Serb authorities after the end of the bombing, when they fled toward Serbia to escape the rage of returning Albanians.

Even if the sympathy of most Roma has been for the Serbs -- a sympathy never reciprocated by the latter, this does not make the pogroms against them more acceptable. In the presence of KFOR troops, the Roma, along with the Serbs and other ethnic groups, have been mercilessly punished by the KLA and returning Kosovo Albanians, in an atmosphere of lawlessness, triumphant ethnic hatred, and loud chauvinist Albanian rhetoric. Again, as in so many places and in so many cases in the last decade, Roma became the scapegoats. This time, they had to pay the Serb bills even more than the Serbs themselves.

When someone has to be blamed in Eastern Europe these days, Roma are always around, the reliable archetypal barbarians with their endless capacity to be guilty of everything. In Central and Eastern Europe, the majority populations have regarded the Roma as a major factor for the high crime rates, the economic problems, and the obstacles to modernisation, even the environmental and aesthetic problems of respective societies. This background prejudice was exacerbated by the conditions of armed conflict, in which Roma, very much like during the Bosnian war, were caught between two fires. Ironically, Roma may be the only oppressed people in the region who never in their history took up arms to struggle for their liberation.

As a result of the Kosovo war, the weakest ethnic group in the region became weaker. There is hardly a Roma family in Kosovo, and indeed in the rest of Yugoslavia, whose life has not been disrupted. Protection of fundamental rights of the Roma by the international troops was pathetic. The media covered the 'third wave' of Kosovo refugees more as a local curiosity than as a human rights catastrophe, in the relative absence of 'more important' news from the province. Once again, the Roma lost a war that they did not wage.

We devote this issue to the Roma of Kosovo, who – in the circumstances – will be the last to ever read it. We cannot mail copies to them either: they are scattered all over the continent, and given Europe's 'hospitality' to Roma, it will take a very long time for them to obtain mailing addresses anywhere. As to Romani readers inside Kosovo, our mail would be going to empty neighbourhoods and ruins.


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