Abandoned in Kosovo

Those European countries which are in such a hurry to recognise Kosovo's independence should also stand up for its beleaguered minorities, of which there are a few.

For almost a decade western attitudes to Kosovo have reinforced the adage that the truth is rarely pure and never simple. As far as Kosovo and the Albanians is and was concerned there truth that was presented to the West was not the truth at all. The West, for some stupid reason, however, swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

In 1999, George Robertson, then Britain's defence secretary, claimed that Nato had undertaken a "fight for a downtrodden people and it has won". The question is who were the downtrodden people that he was referring to?

While it is claimed, and to some extent some of it may indeed be true, that forces controlled by Slobodan Milosevic were responsible for heinous crimes against the ethnic Albanian community that Robertson purported to champion, the fact is, and this was borne out by comments of the KOFOR troops, including high ranking officers, who stated “my God, we backed the wrong side”, as they saw what really had been going on.

In the security vacuum that followed Nato's "victory", there was a wave of violence against Kosovo's minorities: the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians (three groups often described as "Gypsies") and the Serbs. By some estimates, up to four-fifths of the 120,000-strong Roma community were driven from their homes in an true effort of ethnic cleansing. A litany of killings, arson and rape has been documented - in many cases allegedly perpetrated by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (Hashim Thaci, the KLA's political leader at the time, is now prime minister). The majority of Gypsy Mahallas in Kosovo are nowadays ruins and shells and still people are being sent there to be attacked again and often killed.

It has always been the aim of the KLA and those associated with them, but also others that were working on the “liberation” of Kosovo to have a Kosovo for Albanians only and to drive all non-Albanians out and then attach Kosovo to a “Greater Albania”; only they are not going to admit to this now, are they.

Those who fled Kosovo have been reluctant to return and it is not hard to grasp why. Facing almost total unemployment and a dearth of social services, some Roma in Kosovo have been reduced to living on scraps of food from rubbish containers. With a principal Roma neighbourhood in Mitrovica almost completely destroyed in 1999, many of those remaining have been forced into substandard shelter by the UN in an area of toxic contamination which they are not, so it is reported again and again, permitted to leave. Illness is unsurprisingly widespread. All those “refugee camps” are under UN control.

Surely, there is an onus on those European countries who supported the Nato campaign and are now recognising Kosovo's independence to stand up for its beleaguered minorities. How can it be, then, that some of the same countries have made the plight of those the minorities even worse?

UN data indicates that about 2,000 people were forcibly sent back to Kosovo from other parts of Europe last year and more than 3,500 in 2006. A further 90,000 could still be deported, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, has said.

In 1999, Germany's involvement in the Nato effort caused ructions among its Green party, which then belonged to the ruling coalition. To its shame, Germany has been happy to expel significant numbers of Kosovars who have sought refuge on its soil. According to reports, those expelled have included people suffering from trauma who will almost certainly not receive the specialist care they need upon return. But then Germany always likes to get rid of the “Gypsy problem” fast regardless as to whether it is safe for those Gypsies to return or not, as was shown in the 1980's with the Roma and Sinti from Macedonia.

These expulsions disregard warnings by the UN's refugee agency that Serbs and Roma risk persecution if forcibly returned. Similar conclusions have been drawn by Kosovo's ombudsman, who found that returnees continue to be stoned on buses and have their property attacked. In 2006, some returnees were murdered and bombed, he added, and while such incidents had not reoccurred by the time his latest annual report was published, fear that they will persists.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, is perturbed by the woefully inadequate number of prosecutions stemming from past crimes, including war crimes. This means that the people accused of inflicting terror on minorities are frequently still at large.

In theory, the EU's decision to dispatch a law-and-order mission to Kosovo will remedy some of the underlying problems by helping to establish a properly functioning system of justice. But it could still be a long time before the Brussels institutions merit across-the-board confidence in Europe's newest country.

Kosovo's Gypsy population certainly has now been abandoned – not that the UN did much for them (in fact the actions of the UN caused lead poisoning to so many children) – by this overly fast wish to accept Kosovo as an independent state into the family of Nations and here with the like of the EU and the USA in the very forefront. I just would love to know what the hurry is here.

Michael Smith (Veshengro), February 2008