Roma in Kosovo

By Gzim Baxhaku

(This article has been written within a reporting programme launched by the London-based Media Diversity Institute and the BETA news agency, titled "Seeing the Roma Without Prejudice" a part of the Decade of Roma Inclusion.)

International organizations and local authorities in Kosovo do not have any reliable information on the number of Roma living in the province and do not know how many of them moved out during and following the 1999 conflict. According to census figures dating back to 1991, there were 42,806 Roma living in Kosovo. Today, however, 60 to 70 percent are believed to have left.

"No aspect of their lives offers adequate data for basing a strategy for dealing with the Roma problem in Kosovo. Roma are the biggest `collateral damage` of what happened in the former Yugoslavia, especially Kosovo," says Luan Koka, political scientist, reporter, and Roma leader in Serbia-Montenegro.

Before the 1999 conflict, there were Roma in every town and municipality in Kosovo, except for Dragas. Their settlements in Pristina, Kosovska Mitrovica, Vucitrn and other towns were razed to the ground after the pullout of Serbian security forces and are deserted today.

"The Roma who stayed in Kosovo live in fear. They are often accused, mostly without good reason, of collaboration with the Serbian authorities and atrocities against Albanians. Fear causes them to hesitate in reporting violations of their basic rights and discrimination," says Bashkim Hisari from the Belgrade Humanitarian Law Fund. Hisari has been involved with minority issues for a long time.

More than half of Kosovo`s Roma population left precisely because of accusations of "collaboration." During the war, Serb units used some Roma in their campaign against Kosovo`s Albanians, giving them jobs such as torching houses or even removing Albanian corpses. This caused the Albanian majority to develop a disliking for Roma.

Before the outbreak of the Kosovo conflict, Belgrade also encouraged the creation of new ethnic communities, most of which were made up of Roma. They made the Ashkali and Egyptian communities official, and both continue to enjoy minority status to date. Representatives of these communities acted as de facto puppets of the Slobodan Milosevic regime in the negotiations that were held before the war.

Publicist and writer Kujtim Pacaku, editor of the Roma-language division of Radio Yeni Donem in Prizren, says that it is true that Roma are partly to blame for their position on the sidelines of Kosovo society, adding that "the blame is also shared by the majority nation in Kosovo, which is encouraging stereotypes about Roma."

The town of Prizren is unique in Kosovo in its treatment of the local Roma community. Most of the community stayed in their settlement during the war and after the Serb pullout. They say this is because they did not cooperate with the Serbian authorities before the conflict.

Today, Roma have the biggest financial and social problems of any ethnic community in Kosovo. They live in isolation, on the outskirts of towns in settlements built of flimsy materials. Their homes and businesses are illegal, and most of their populated areas lack sewers, water supplies, electricity, and the hygienic conditions required to lead a normal life. About 90 percent of adult Roma are believed to be unemployed. Most live on state welfare or donations of food and clothing from the international community.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion is still not being marked in Kosovo. Neither the interim government nor the international administration, which has the greater say in matters of minorities, has yet drawn up a program dealing with this. However, both the government and UNMIK have been paying more attention to Roma lately.

Government sources say they are working on a program for the Decade or Roma Inclusion. The government has secured about EUR2 million for building housing for 114 families, 550 people in all, currently located at the Plemetina camp near Pristina. The foundations have been laid for an apartment building with 37 apartments in Obilic, as well as an identical block in Magura in Lipljan municipality, about 20 kilometers southwest of Pristina.

Kosovo`s Roma have called on the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology to introduce additional classes to teach Romany, Roma culture, and history. The ministry has not replied even though the call was first made two years ago.

Only Radio-Television Kosova, the public broadcaster, features broadcasts in Romany simply because it is required by law to do so. The station has two Romany shows per week. Radio broadcasts are in the works and will also be made twice weekly.

The Constitutional Framework guarantees at least one seat in the Kosovo Assembly for a Roma representative. In the first assembly and the one that is currently in office, the Roma representative has been Hadzi Zulfi Merdza, president of the Democratic Party of Roma.

Pacaku says that Roma have accepted the new reality of Kosovo, and that now Kosovo has to accept Roma. Representatives of the Roma community are saying that the Albanian majority and they need to embrace the same values. Merdza, the Assembly member, says that resolving the final status of Kosovo will improve the standing of the Roma community.