Kosovo Gypsies live in fear of Albanian revenge

Accused by ethnic Albanians of collaborating with the Serbs during last spring's violence, as many as 80 000 Roma have been forced to flee their homes


Thursday, March 23, 2000

Pristina, Yugoslavia -- Europe's ultimate outcasts, Gypsies, are used to being made the whipping boy when things go wrong. So it is with fatalism, rather than surprise, that Nasser Adiqi faces what has happened to the Gypsies of Kosovo since the end of NATO's bombing campaign last year.

"We have always been second-class citizens," he said.

Until last spring, Mr. Adiqi was a schoolteacher in the Gypsy community in the town of Kosovo Polje. Now, he presides over a squalid refugee camp in Plementina, protected night and day by Norwegian troops. No one dares leave the camp for fear of being beaten or even killed.

So it is for Gypsies all over Kosovo. When hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians flooded back into Kosovo at the end of the campaign by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in June, the Gypsies were caught up in a wave of revenge attacks as the ethnic Albanians settled scores for what had happened during the bombing.

The main victims were ethnic Serbs. More than 100,000 have been forced to flee since last year, and the remainder huddle in isolated enclaves protected by international troops.

But other minorities have suffered just as much. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslim Slavs have been forced to flee, despite their religious links to the ethnic Albanians, most of whom are Muslims. Kosovo's small Croatian community also lives in fear.

But perhaps the saddest case is that of the Gypsies. When the Serbs ran Kosovo, they were persecuted and abused. Now, they are suffering the same treatment at the hands of the victorious ethnic Albanians.

Accused by the ethnic Albanians of collaborating with the Serbs during last spring's violence, as many as 80,000 have been forced to flee their homes. Many have left Kosovo, and most of those who remain live in refugee camps or in fear-filled enclaves.

Paul Polansky, the U.S. author of several books on Europe's Gypsies, said that only 30,000 of the 150,000 who lived in Kosovo before the war remain in their homes. After travelling around Kosovo late last year to gauge the state of the Gypsy community, he estimated that 14,000 Gypsy homes had been burned down as part of what he called "a systematic cleansing" of the community.

The violence continues. In the town of Djakovica, a besieged community of 7,000 Gypsies (or Roma, as some prefer to be called) is under 24-hour protection from international troops after a series of grenade attacks. In January, two Gypsy men were slain while standing guard outside a house after an arson attack.

Earlier, in Kosovo Polje, a Gypsy father was kicked and stoned while trying to take his son to hospital.

Mr. Adiqi and his group have been relatively lucky, if that is the right word for people who have lost their homes and possessions. Located in a muddy field under the imposing smokestacks of a big power plant, their camp is far enough from the nearest ethnic Albanian community to deter any attacks.

But many people in the camp have awful stories to tell. Ardiana Statovci, 17, spent the 11 weeks of the war in the same way that her ethnic Albanian neighbours did: hiding in her apartment while Serb paramilitaries rampaged through the streets outside.

But when the war ended, a group of men dressed in the uniform of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group, banged on the door of her Pristina apartment and accused her of collaborating with the Serbs. When she denied it, one of them hit her with his rifle butt. She still has the scar on her forehead.

When she went out to go to the hospital, some Albanian youths on the streets said: "Hey, Gypsy girl. Come over here. Why did you help the Serbs steal from us?"

Then they beat her up.

Straggling home from the attack, she was accosted and beaten by a second, separate group who made the same accusation.

A few days later, she joined a group of 1,000 Gypsies that fled Pristina at 4 a.m. and walked through the rest of the night to Kosovo Polje. Now, she helps Mr. Adiqi run the camp for 800 Gypsies at Plementina, a half-hour drive north of Pristina.

But her troubles are not over. She has not seen her mother and three younger brothers since they left Pristina at the start of the war, headed for Macedonia. Her soft, brown eyes fill with tears when she thinks of what might have happened to them.

Things in the Plementina camp are safer than in most Gypsy enclaves. Physical conditions are relatively good. New barracks-like buildings with concrete floors and steel frames are springing up, built with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But none of the 800 residents is bold enough to venture outside, even to walk down the road for groceries. Refugee groups bring in all their supplies.

"We are prisoners here," said Mr. Adiqi, a sober man with a day's growth of beard who draws on a U.S. cigarette. "Who knows when we will ever go home."

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