I am a Rom (more commonly known as “Gypsy”) who was born in Kosovo, Yugoslavia, and lived in Pristina (the capital of the Kosovo region) for 27 years. In the summer of 2000, ten years later, I was only 30 miles away in Macedonia but I could not visit the town where I lived most of my life. This was more than three years after the “humanitarian bombing” by U.S.-NATO forces and escalation of ethnic conflict began in Kosovo on March 24th, 1999. But it was still too dangerous for me, as a dark-skinned “Madjupi” (Albanian term connoting “lower than garbage”), to set foot inside of Kosovo.
Finally, the day arrived (May 2nd, 2002) when I could visit my place of birth, the place of so many memories from my youth. But that place–where I grew up with my four brothers and one sister, cousins, relatives, neighbors, friends–no longer existed. Everything had been wiped away. The new and renovated houses, villas, gas stations, motels, all built in the past three years by the triumphant ethnic Albanians, made Kosovo look like a foreign country to me. I didn’t know what to feel in that moment of returning. Fear, happiness, anger, sadness?
The paradox that crossed my mind was that all this rebuilding is being sponsored by international relief agencies and financed by development and investment companies with such well-known heads as Dick Cheney and George Soros. Meanwhile the Roma, Serbs, Gorani, Bosnians, Turks and other minorities in Kosovo are starving! While most of these international institutions were bragging about “free and democratic Kosovo,” these peoples were forced to abandon their homes, suffering a “humanitarian” supported ethnic cleansing that has been virtually invisible to the rest of the world. The ironic consequence of NATO/US rescue of oppressed Albanians is that they then became oppressors themselves.
This May, as President of Voice of Roma (VOR), I led a trip to Kosovo with delegates representing human rights, refugee assistance, and peace groups from the U.S., Germany, Italy, and Holland. Most people working in such organizations think that Kosovo is free now, and that its people are living in harmony and peace. They are surprised when I inform them that the ethnic minorities in Kosovo are still fleeing. I wanted them to witness with their own eyes what is going on there.
The delegates were housed in the Romani communities, south of Pristina. Each family hosted two or more delegates. The delegates spent time with and got to know people who had been caught in heavy crossfire between Serbs and Albanians, suffered from the heavy bombing by NATO’s <U.S.-led> forces, and experienced discrimination by K-FOR forces, the U.N. Police, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and Western European foreign policies. The delegates were appalled by the stories they heard and shocked at the conditions under which the Kosovo Roma were living.
Since NATO’s “peace-keepers” arrived in Kosovo, more than 300,000 ethnic minorities have been “cleansed” from the region by extremist Albanians. It has been more than a year since the U.N. Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released any statements about human rights abuses of minorities in Kosovo. Surprisingly, such NGOs as Doctors Without Borders (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), the International Red Cross, Oxfam, and many more have failed the ethnic minorities in Kosovo by not addressing their problems. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are alone in reporting on minority human rights abuses in Kosovo.
My question is: If NATO’s so-called humanitarian bombing was to stop “ethnic cleansing,” why are the same Western powers now so unwilling to intervene on behalf of the actual ethnic cleansing of Romani people and other minorities in Kosovo?
The ethnic cleansing of the Roma since U.N. peace-keepers arrived in June 12th of 1999 has resulted in more than 75% of this population (over 100,000 Romani people) fleeing Kosovo. Still the media and the international “humanitarian” community are silent. U.S. and Western media did not catch any of these events on their radar screens, or rather willingly ignored these horrors. (See our report The Current Plight of the Roma in Kosovo, available from Voice of Roma, P.O. Box 514, Sebastopol, CA 95473.)
The majority of the Roma who are left in Kosovo (25,000 out of a prewar population of 150,000) are internal refugees, but they do not have the official status of refugees. Instead these Roma are labeled “internally-displaced persons” (IDPs), with fewer recognized rights than refugees, and are restricted to camps with very poor facilities. Some Roma do live in Serbian controlled enclaves. No other ethnic group is in the IDP camps, only Roma. Why is this? Only the Roma have no safe haven country. Serbs flee to Serbia, Bosnians to Bosnia, Turks to Turkey, and Gorani (who are Muslim/Slavs) to Macedonia or Western Europe.
The poorest of the poor, in the IDP camps, the Roma face a remarkable level of discrimination and oppression that is threatening their lives and crippling their culture. Just to give you an idea, the U.N. provides to each of the Roma in IDP camps a monthly ration of eight kilos (17 pounds) of flour, two onions, two tomatoes, a half-kilo (one pound) of cheese, and some fruit (usually rotten). Beyond that, there is only three liters of cooking oil per family, regardless of family size; no other supplies are available (interviews with refugees in IDP camps in Kosovo and Macedonia). If these people are struggling to survive physically, what then happens to their culture?
For another example, when a U.N. representative was approached by a VOR representative about providing cooking and drinking water to Roma in one camp, his reply was, “Oh, the Gypsies know how to take care of themselves. They’re nomads; they’ve lived all their lives like that.” If the Roma are facing such dismissal from those on whom they depend for their physical survival, how are they to survive either physically or culturally?
This deeply-rooted stereotype, that the Roma are uncivilized wanderers who don’t have the same needs as members of “civilized” societies is contradicted by the facts. In Kosovo, Roma have lived in houses for over seven hundred years, and most of them have never seen a wanderer’s caravan. The effect of such stereotypes is to dehumanize the Roma and destroy their cultural infrastructure.
In today’s “free” Kosovo, no Rom can move freely; his children cannot go to school, and cannot speak their mother tongue. Because they had to leave their homes and now must stay in the camps, most of the Roma still in Kosovo have not seen nearby family members in more than three years. That means, among other things, that marriages cannot be made according to Romani social rules. What happens to a society in which new families cannot form?
How can we change the situation of Roma, wherever they may happen to be? What is our responsibility to a people who have been so abused and ignored for centuries?
SANI RIFATI is a Romani activist, writer and lecturer from Kosovo, now living in Graton, California. He is the President of Voice of Roma, a non-profit advocacy group working on behalf of Roma in Kosovo and Romani refugees living throughout Europe.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in Dissident Voice.
Glossary of Terms:
Rom= one person, (sing.), human being or husband in Romani language.
Roma= Gypsies (pl.)
Romani=Adjective (e.g. Romani language, history, culture, etc…)
Madjupi= Derogatory term in Albanian language for Roma.
Gorani= Ethnic group in Kosovo that are Slav Muslim