June 17, 2000Kosovo Roma persecution eases
PRIZREN, Yugoslavia (AP) -- In a cobble-stoned street flooded by the sun, two swarthy-skinned men sit on a rug playing cards and trading jokes. Asked about life in Kosovo, one of them grins and says: "It's never been better."
More Gypsies sit on another sidewalk less than a 20 minute drive away. But the mood among the men in the Serb part of Orahovac couldn't be more different from that of their Prizren brethren. Scowls meet the same question here, and the answer is: "We are prisoners, unable to move freely for fear of attack."
A year after NATO-led peacekeepers arrived in Kosovo, the truth about whether life is improving for the province's nearly 30,000 remaining Gypsy -- or Roma -- minority is hard to pin down.
It is instead colored by long-standing prejudices and complicated by the fact that many Roma deny their heritage. They call themselves Serbs, or Egyptians or Ashkali in clear attempts to distance themselves from traditional anti-Gypsy prejudices.
It's not difficult to figure out which groups are gradually improving relations with the Albanian minority. Though they call themselves Egyptians, most members of that group speak only Albanian, as do the Ashkali. Both are Muslims and generally live among Albanians. The other Roma often only speak Serb and live with Serbs. Many even consider themselves Serbs -- like those in Orahovac, trapped in a Serb enclave of the city because of fear of attack from Albanians.
Still, for the rest of the world, they are all Roma. And with suspicions fading that all dark-skinned Kosovo residents collaborated with the Serbs during their crackdown on majority Albanians, attacks are decreasing. Gyspies are slowly again becoming part of everyday life in many Albanian-dominated Kosovo cities, towns and villages.
Officials from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees point to an April agreement on reconciliation and recent visits by the major Kosovo Albanian leaders to the cities of Prizren and Urosevac for meetings with local Roma community leaders as signs of how much things have improved since the first months after the war.
"When we started the process of reconciliation six months ago, nobody thought things would improve this quickly," says Ariana Zherka of the Pristina UNHCR branch. "When I first started meeting Roma leaders, they were anxious and fearful. Now they sit on municipal government boards and their views are being heard and respected."
Because dark-skinned Roma look different from other Kosovo residents, those who did side with the Serbs were highly visible. That led to a general backlash against the Roma. Dennis McNamara, the head of Kosovo's UNHCR mission, says that "they were the second-most targeted after the Serbs" by Albanians seeking revenge for the Serb crackdown that killed an estimated 10,000 people.
Now, with emotions cooling, and non-Serbian-speaking Roma seeking to make amends, ethnic Albanian political leaders realize that the Roma "are not a threat politically, and the Albanians can make concessions to the Roma that they cannot make to the Serbs," McNamara said.
By opting for ethnic reconciliation with a minority, ethnic Albanian political leaders clearly hope to blunt international criticism that the violence by their own people demonstrates the same kind of racist intolerance of which the Serbs were once accused.
Still, the Albanian hand of reconciliation does not appear to extend to Serb-speaking Roma in Orahovac and elsewhere.
"We've been locked in here for a year," says one of the Orahovac Roma, who identified himself only as Mirko. "Everyone should have freedom of movement. But the Albanians won't let us move out of here -- some of us tried, but they didn't come back.
"It's hatred without reason -- none of us did anything."
Asked in the Albanian part of Orahovac about Serb Roma, Suleiman Safte replies: "They're worse than the Serbs. The Serbs just killed. Those Roma asked their victims, 'With which knife would you like to be killed?"'
There's still a long way to go, even in improving relations between Albanians and the pro-Albanian Roma like the Egyptians and the Ashkali. In some cases, revenge violence lessened only after leaders of such communities got their followers to do thousands of hours of free labor, rebuilding Albanian houses they say they did not destroy.
And some speak even now of recent violence -- like Imer Bajrami, who remains traumatized by two raids on his house by masked Albanian-speaking men.
The last time, less than two months ago, "they pulled plastic bags over our head and down our bodies and threatened to burn us," says Bajrami, 75, squatting on his haunches as he watches traffic flow by. "They said, 'You work with the Serbs, you have guns inside.' One put a burning lighter to the bag covering my wife for a second before they all left.
"Since then, things have started improving a bit. But I'm still afraid to sleep at home."